Chances are excellent that a shop in Middleton is the only place in the world where the heads of Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard, Brian Elliott, and Anton Khudobin are stacked next to each other on a dusty and well-worn cabinet, looking like they belong on Easter Island.
The space is the headquarters of Pro’s Choice. It is a company that designs and produces custom goalie masks in conjunction with Vaughn Hockey. Dom Malerba, a former Malden Catholic goalie, launched Pro’s Choice in 1988. Since then, Malerba has been the company’s one-man assembly line, responsible for everything except the sundae-topping paint job adorning each of his masks.
The heads of the NHL goalies are the cement busts of Malerba’s clients. To make each piece fit perfectly, Malerba needs the heads — he produces them after taking a plaster mold of the goalies’ faces — and all the respective bumps and contours of noses and cheeks and foreheads.
Malerba’s familiarity with his clients is to a point where he can look at one of the gray cement blocks and tell whose face it represents.
“Yep, this is [Nikolai] Khabibulin,” Malerba confirmed, lifting one head to reveal “Hab” scrawled in marker on the bottom.
For the most part, hockey equipment is standard industrial design. There is little that distinguishes a particular brand’s skates or helmets or pants from others.
The goalie mask does not conform to uniformity. There is a reason why Jason immortalized the goalie mask by wearing it for his bloody adventures. It is the singular piece — a Jackson Pollock amid a gallery of white-on-white canvases.
It has been this way ever since Jacques Plante first pulled on his mask in 1959. Think Gerry Cheevers’s stitches, Tim Thomas’s half mask/half cage, or Mike Richter’s Statue of Liberty. The masks reflect the wearers’ personalities while keeping them safe.
Today’s creative paint jobs emphasize masks as art. But their first mission is safety.
Malerba shivers at old-school mask design, to say nothing of goalies who chose not to use protection. Previous masks, because of their materials and design, had too many flat and dangerous areas. When a puck struck the forehead, for example, the mask did not dissipate its energy. The result, at the least, was a headache for the goalie. More likely, a concussion.
Today’s masks allow a goalie to stare down Shea Weber and shrug off a one-timer to the melon. Even the center bar is triangle-shaped instead of flat to deflect a puck’s force away from its wearer.
“There’s no flat spots,” Malerba said, using one of Elliott’s Ottawa masks as an example. “Everything is angled. Some masks out there have a big flat spot. Why would you want a flat spot? When the puck hits it, you’re going to take the brunt instead of deflecting it. You want the puck to glaze off it.”
Malerba typically charges $1,850 for a white mask. Add in the paint job, and the bill can be upward of $2,500. Each mask requires approximately 40 hours of labor.
The process starts with an in-person plaster mold. It is the foundation for the cement block upon which Malerba begins the construction process. Each mask features 16 layers of graphite, fiberglass, and Kevlar. Malerba keeps the materials on rolls in a corner of his shop. By hand, he applies the materials to the cement block.
Malerba then transfers the block to another station where he applies resin. This stage, according to Malerba, makes his masks more durable than most. Malerba pays $1,100 for a 5-gallon pail of resin. Malerba won’t say where he gets his resin, but he says it’s used in airplane wings.
At room temperature, the resin is rock-hard. But when heated, it turns to a syrup-like consistency. By hand, Malerba applies the resin to the mask. When the resin hardens, so does the mask. A four-hour bake at approximately 80 degrees is the final stage toward making the 2½-pound mask lightweight but almost unbreakable.
The only recent instance when one of Malerba’s masks was damaged took place earlier this season. One of Elliott’s masks, along with some other gear, fell onto the street during transport. An 18-wheeler ran over the equipment. Elliott’s mask was flattened.
Malerba does not paint his masks. Most goalies have their preferred painter. Thomas’s painter is Steve Nash. Rask uses Jesse Acciacca, a Wilmington artist who also paints cars, guitars, and motorcycles.
One of Malerba’s most recent constructions was Rask’s Olympic mask. Rask is not finicky about his gear. The only adjustments Malerba’s made to Rask’s Bruins lid was replacing the foam pads inside the mask. So, while his Olympic mask would not need any structural changes, Rask wanted it to capture his country’s spirit.
Acciacca painted a lion on the crown. There is a lion on Finland’s coat of arms. The lion’s claws are wrapped around the Finnish flag on the sides. “Suomi,” which reads Finland in Finnish, is on the chin. The backplate shows a hand gripping a sword and “Finland” written below. The stainless-steel cage has a 24-karat gold finish.
Not all of Malerba’s masks are for games. In the 1990s, Malerba made a mask for Bill Clinton. The paint job was of a razorback playing the saxophone. The mask’s whereabouts are unknown.
“I don’t know,” said Malerba. “But I did get a card.”
GETTING IT RIGHT
St. Louis deserved nod from the outset
It took a doctor’s call on Steven Stamkos for Team Canada to get it right the second time. On Wednesday, Stamkos was ruled out of the Olympics because his right leg, broken at TD Garden on Nov. 11, has not healed to the point of clearing the center for game play.
Only because of Stamkos’s situation was Martin St. Louis given the green light for Sochi. He should have been on the roster from the start.
“If it was going to be anyone, he deserved a spot on that team,” Stamkos told Tampa reporters on Thursday. “Everyone in the locker room can attest to that. He deserved to be on that team from Day 1.”
Through 57 games, St. Louis had 25 goals and 30 assists and was leading the Lightning’s playoff push. St. Louis can play both wings. Internationally, he can be just as effective in an energy role as he is among the top six forwards.
“He’ll play whatever role possible, and I think he’s going to play a big role,” Stamkos said. “The way he’s played in big-game situations in the past, he’s won individual awards, he’s won team championships — he’s been in those situations. It’s not like a young guy who’s never been in those situations coming in and filling in for somebody. He’ll step in and play any role asked.”
The player St. Louis should have originally replaced is Jeff Carter. The Los Angeles center is a one-dimensional player, although his primary skill — he leads the Kings with 20 goals — serves his country well in a short tournament. But like all shooters, Carter is streaky. He entered the break with zero goals in his last eight games.
St. Louis could have said no to Steve Yzerman, his Lightning general manager and Team Canada’s executive director. St. Louis didn’t like being passed over the first time.
“As upset as you can be sometimes, it’s hard to turn down these opportunities,” he said. “You’ve got to realize that you only get a few kicks at the can. You’ve got to put the emotion aside and realize the experience and the opportunity.”
Oilers a lost cause, but Hall the real deal
Tyler Seguin has one Stanley Cup ring. He was two wins short of a second. Seguin is now part of a rebuild in Dallas with a vision of puck possession, rapid transition, and experience.
The man picked one spot ahead of Seguin in 2010 has none of those things.
This is Taylor Hall’s fourth season in the NHL. It will be his fourth exit following the regular season. Hall’s employer is giving him no hope that things will change in Year 5.
Edmonton has three first overall picks, including Hall, on its roster. The Oilers have an audience that cares deeply about hockey. But they are treading water as an organization without an identity. The Oilers are a bad team, and not getting any better.
Hall is an exceptional talent. The 22-year-old plays a heavy, relentless game, which makes him exceptional in Edmonton. For all their skill, the Oilers play light, bail out on puck battles, and make untimely mistakes. They rarely have the puck. It is a bad mix of players that is not being coached well. It is a waste of Hall’s skill.
There is young back-end help approaching. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are highly valued defensemen. They should help the Oilers improve their breakouts and get the puck to their skilled forwards. That won’t be enough. The Oilers need experience and courage up front and on the back end. To do that, general manager Craig MacTavish will have to dangle his young players and sell them low. It’s a price he has to pay.
Hall and Jordan Eberle are keepers. But all of their other teammates have shortcomings that, when added up, result in an oil-and-water mix. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is small. Nail Yakupov’s hockey sense is poor. Justin Schultz gives up on pucks. These are flaws that deeper and more experienced rosters could absorb. Not the Oilers.
After four years, losing becomes a habit that’s hard to shake. By now, Hall has forgotten how to win. It’s his GM’s responsibility not to render Hall’s career irrelevant.
As of Friday, Brad Marchand ranked 100th in the NHL in scoring. Of Marchand’s 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists), none had come on the power play. Marchand was averaging only 31 seconds of power-play ice time per game. Every player above Marchand on the scoring list had at least one man-up point. The only other comparable player is Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano, who had 31 points, including zero on the power play. Marchand’s absence of man-advantage production indicates two things. First, Marchand is doing very well at even strength and on the penalty kill, where he leads the league with four shorthanded strikes. It’s far harder to score in even-strength or man-down situations. Second, the Bruins have depth on the power play. Marchand won’t displace anybody on the first unit. On the No. 2 unit, Marchand might be a better option on the right boards than Loui Eriksson (zero goals, three assists on the power play).
The NHL lost one of its pioneers on Tuesday when former Flyers general manager Keith Allen died at 90. Allen was at the helm of the Broad Street Bullies from 1968 to 1983. His Flyers won the Stanley Cup twice during that stretch. Some of the players Allen acquired included Bernie Parent, Andre Dupont, and Reggie Leach. Philadelphia drafted Bill Barber, Ron Hextall, Bill Clement, and Paul Holmgren under Allen’s watch. “Keith Allen always found a way to bring exceptional talent to Broad Street and weave it into the fabric of a team that would succeed and endure at the highest level,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Because in Philadelphia, for his Flyers and their fans, no other level was acceptable. The National Hockey League sends heartfelt condolences to Keith’s family, to his friends, and to the Flyers organization, which has lost one of its patriarchs.”
Chris Phillips, a possible trade target for the Bruins, missed six straight games heading into this weekend because of a lower-body injury. The Senators have yet to decide whether they’re buying or selling prior to the March 5 trade deadline. If it’s the latter, they could land future assets for Phillips, their rugged left-shot defenseman. But Phillips’s injury could drive down the cost. He would do no team any good, including the Bruins, if his injury is at risk of aggravation in the playoffs.
There is a reason players like to sign with Newport Sports Management: The agency usually lands top dollar for its clients. Last summer’s moneymaker was David Clarkson, owner of a seven-year, $36.75 million deal. For all that cash, Toronto landed a bottom-six grinder who can’t stay healthy nor elude the watch of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Through 38 games, Clarkson had provided four goals and six assists to his employer while delivering hope to his fellow plumbers seeking big payouts via free agency. The primary beneficiary of Clarkson’s bar-setting contract will be Ryan Callahan, the Rangers’ captain, who plays a similar in-your-face game.
The thought here was that an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium amid drought conditions in California was an extravagance. But the average rink, even one outside, does not require much water in relation to other uses, such as filling a pool or watering a lawn. According to the NHL, an outdoor rink requires a sheet 2 inches thick, or approximately 20,000 gallons of water. Upon the game’s conclusion, the melted ice was used to water the Dodger Stadium grass. Based on current rates, the cost of the water was between $100 and $150. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power distributes 550 million gallons of water daily to a 465-acre parcel. An average swimming pool in LA requires between 18,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to fill. So even if the region is experiencing a drought, the Stadium Series game did not stress the water supply.
No significant players were moved before Friday’s Olympic freeze. There are only five teams whose postseason chances are just about nil: the Islanders, Florida, Buffalo, Calgary, and Edmonton. It’s hard for a team to acknowledge to its fan base that it’s time to sell when eighth place is still within sight. Also, players continue to receive paychecks during the Olympic break. Owners are not keen on paying players to sit on the beach — or, even worse, to get hurt in Sochi . . . Nathan Horton is off to a nice start in Columbus. Through 18 games, he had four goals and seven assists. Most recently, Horton has been playing with Ryan Johansen, who could become the next high-end, wide-bodied center in the league. The 6-foot-3-inch, 223-pound Johansen had 24 goals and 22 assists through 58 games. If Johansen develops a mean streak, look out . . . Huge shame that ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka will not play in the Olympics for the Czech Republic because of an injury. Sobotka always had the physical assets to become a regular NHL forward, but his hockey sense was lacking. In St. Louis, Sobotka takes many of his shifts as the No. 2 center for Ken Hitchcock, a coach who emphasizes structure and smarts. Fellow Czech Olympian David Krejci was especially sorry to see his former teammate’s bad luck . . . Nashville GM and Team USA boss David Poile required surgery after being hit in the face with a puck on Thursday. Poile still planned on traveling to Sochi. Northeastern, after all, has always produced tough guys.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.