Q&A: Goalie mask artist David Gunnarsson on individuality in the NHL

David Gunnarsson's artwork — depicting actor Will Ferrell in the movie 'Semi-Pro' — on Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko's mask. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

TORONTO — Even if you don’t know David Gunnarsson’s name, you know his work.

You’ve probably seen it a few hundred times, felt your eyes drawn to it here and there, had conversations about it at some point. As one of the most prolific goalie mask artists in the sport, Gunnarsson’s creations are on display nearly every night, his airbrush mastery gracing the masks of netminders in rinks across the NHL.

Painting for big-leaguers since 2001, he’s worked with everyone from veterans Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price and Frederik Andersen to younger ‘tenders like Jordan Binnington. He’s seen his artwork immortalized in some of the most memorable moments in NHL history — with seconds winding down before the Stanley Cup is hoisted, as the snow falls softly during outdoor Classics, or during all those Vezina-clinching performances that live forever in the highlight reel.

But even after crafting hundreds of masks over the years, there’s no hesitation when asked which stands out among the rest.

“The mask for Robin Lehner,” Gunnarsson says.

This particular mask was about far more than hockey, he says. Dubbed ‘My Reality,’ the mask was created by Gunnarsson and Lehner — who’s become a leading voice for mental health advocacy in hockey circles — to depict the netminder’s experience of living with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. The top of the mask represents the difficulties faced, while the sides feature a rising sun, the dawn of a new era in Lehner’s life.

“When he told me he wanted to tell his story on his mask, that was very special to me because I also had mental health problems,” Gunnarsson says. “So I also have a big passion for it. When he told me his story, I recognized so much from my own story. I didn’t have the same problem as him, but I recognized much of the problems between myself and him.

“What I suffered from when I grew up was OCD. It was a horrible part of my growing up, fighting with OCD. So, to be able to paint this mask for Robin, to tell the world about people who have mental health problems, that also made it extremely personal for me.”

Robin Lehner knew what he wanted on his new New York Islanders mask. It was truly special for me to paint this for my friend Robin. He wanted to tell the story about his reality. He wanted the mask to be named My Reality. Robin and I have been working together since Robin was a kid. Robin wanted the mask to tell the story about the hell he has been through. You can read his brave story at The Athletic, about mental illness, bipolar diagnosis, suicide thoughts, anxiety, addiction, panic attacks. Now Robin´s new life starts for him and his family and he wanted the mask to testify of his new life. The top of the mask describes how Robin´s reality has been for years… The most important part of mask is the sides, there is the sun at dawn, describing the start of the new life for Robin when he decided to seek help for himself and his family and also follow Jesus and get baptised. It is so brave by Robin to tell his story to help other people. I am so impressed by you Robin. You also made me stronger with your story. This painting was extra emotional for me to create because since I was a kid I also have been fighting anxiety, panic attacks, OCD… And just as Robin I have seeked for help and found strength in my family and God @robinlehner40 @ny_islanders @nhl @daveart

913 Likes, 9 Comments – David Gunnarsson (@daveart) on Instagram: “Robin Lehner knew what he wanted on his new New York Islanders mask. It was truly special for me to…”

When Lehner’s mask was nominated by hockey fans as the best in the game, the netminder spoke about his work with Gunnarsson and the bond formed by the two sharing their stories. That appreciation of his work served as a poignant reminder for Gunnarsson of just how far he’s come.

“It means so much to me,” he says. “I saw it on TV and he talked about his mask, he talked about his journey. And he also mentioned me and my story, that the mask was so important to me.

“It was huge for me to see that. I would love to send that video to myself when I was a kid growing up.”

It’s been a long journey from his early days painting for local teams to seeing his work lifted to the top of the sport. With plenty of stories from those near-two decades working the game’s best, Gunnarsson spoke with Sportsnet from Vrigstad, Sweden to reflect on how he fell in love with the goalie mask, how he got his break in the big leagues, and the value of goalie mask art as a rare expression of NHLers’ individuality.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Take us back to the beginning — how did you first become interested in goalie masks? How did you get started in the mask-painting scene?

David Gunnarsson: To paint and draw has been my biggest interest since I was a little kid. So, painting, drawing was all that I did, and my dream was to be a full-time artist when I grew up. When I watched hockey, I saw that the goalies had painted masks — I remember when I was a kid I had a poster on my wall with Ed Belfour and his eagle mask.

Then I started to paint masks for goalies around here where I live in the late ‘90s. In ’96, I got a request from the top team here, HV71 — I got the chance to paint for their goalie, and he was the first pro I painted for. When I did that, it was like an immediate success — it spread around here in Sweden that I painted masks.

And I tried to paint masks in a new way, to paint not just monsters. I tried to think outside the box and do other stuff on the masks.

It spread here in Sweden so I could work full-time as a mask artist, and the Swedish goalies, when they moved to America to play in the NHL, they wanted to continue working with me. In 2001, I had my big break in the NHL when Johan Hedberg, who played with the Pittsburgh Penguins, wore a moose mask that I painted for him. That mask became very popular because of Hedberg — he played so great in the playoffs, he became The Moose.

After that, more and more goalies came to me and wanted their masks painted. The first Canadian goalie was Kevin Weekes — he had seen my work for Hedberg so he contacted me, he played for the Carolina Hurricanes at that time. Every year, it became more and more players. It grew and grew and grew. Today I work with almost like 60 per cent of NHL goalies.

It’s totally crazy, and a dream come true.

SN: What do you remember about those first masks you painted, before you were working with the NHLers. How do you think your work has progressed since those early days?

Gunnarsson: In the early days the paintings were more simple, not so detailed. And every year I have become better and better technically.

But one thing I have learned through the years is that the most important thing when I paint masks is the creativity. That has been my key thing from the beginning, but my imagination has always been very strong. In this job, when I paint pro masks full-time, every day, 24-seven almost, I have to come up with new ideas all the time. And that has been my blessing, that I have been able to do that. That is the most important part of this work.

SN: Who’s the player you’ve worked with the most over the years, and how has that relationship changed over time in terms of continuing to come up with new ideas?

Gunnarsson: Some guys I have been working with for so many many years, we have got to know each other pretty well. When I work with Henrik Lundqvist, for example, I know what he likes on the masks, and what he does not like. So now we don’t have to talk too much for every mask — I know what he likes and he knows I am thinking. I always do a sketch that the goalie can have a look at, so that they see that we are on the same page.

SN: Take me through that process a little bit. A player comes to you that you haven’t worked with before — where do you start and how does that process progress?

Gunnarsson: When it’s a new guy, I do research about the goalie, and we talk by phone or by e-mail. I ask some questions, what he likes and does not like.

I try to see what kind of story he wants to tell on his mask, so I do a lot of reading and research. And then I go by myself and do a lot of thinking, and I put together a sketch. Sometimes the sketch is confirmed by the goalie directly, so we’re on the same page. Sometimes I need to do many sketches to capture whatever the goalie wants to tell on his mask.

David Gunnarsson alongside Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist (Courtesy David Gunnarsson).

SN: Your masks have become part of hockey history — you look at photos of Stanley Cup celebrations and Winter Classics and they’re there in the fray. What does it mean to you to be part of the history of the game, and to see your art on display in those moments?

Gunnarsson: It’s a huge blessing and I’m very humbled by the chance I have to sit here in my Paint Barn and paint for all these incredibly talented goalies, to be a little part of the game. I’m so thankful and happy.

When I was growing up, I had some problems, mental illness problems. It made me a bit sad sometimes. But my biggest dream was to be a painter, and now I am a full-time painter. So it’s a dream come true in so many ways.

SN: It feels like in hockey, one of the only ways you see players able to express their creativity or individuality is goalies and what they put on their masks. What do you think about the importance of goalie mask art in that way?

Gunnarsson: I think — I’m not sure, but I think — hockey is the only sport where you can paint the helmet in this way. It’s so very cool, and very much a part of hockey culture.

SN: We get to see parts of players’ personalities through their masks that we might never see otherwise, too. I think of Frederik Andersen and his Lego mask — that says something about him that we might’ve never come across. What do you think about how your work helps in that sense, in letting us get to know the players in a different way?

Gunnarsson: Yeah, that really makes it possible for the whole game and for the goalie himself to show who he is. In Frederik’s case, he can pay tribute to his home country and have a Lego figure on his mask.

Or, for example, Robin Lehner and his mask — he wanted to tell his story about his mental health problems. He wanted to tell his side, through the mask. It was a very cool feeling.

SN: How do you feel about your role in being the person who gets to help players tell their side?

Gunnarsson: I’m very thankful for the trust they show me, to create their stories. I’m so very thankful.

SN: I know one of the other things you’ve focused on is trying to push the envelope technically in terms of how you’re painting, the technology you’re using — in that vein, what are some of the most challenging masks you’ve worked on, in terms of trying to do something new that people haven’t seen before?

Gunnarsson: That is the fun and exciting part, to try to always come up with new ideas. Early in my painting career, I started to practice to be as good as possible, to paint whatever a goalie wants. So, for example, if the goalie wants a portrait painting — like I did for Jordan Binnington when he wanted a portrait of CuJo on his mask — my goal is to be as good at painting portraits as at funny cartoons, like Frederik Andersen’s Lego figures.

My goal is to be as good as possible, to paint whatever the goalies want, and whatever style they want. For example, Binnington’s masks, they are very rough and raw and scratchy, and a mask for Carey Price is more clean. They are very different in style, and I love to paint in different styles.

#Repost @mapleleafs ・・・ New look for the Blue Knight

829 Likes, 1 Comments – David Gunnarsson (@daveart) on Instagram: “#Repost @mapleleafs ・・・ New look for the Blue Knight”

SN: You’ve gotten to paint some interesting ones — the retro Canucks mask for Thatcher Demko, the outdoor game masks. I remember you painted a mask for Petr Cech as well. What was it like working on those ones?

Gunnarsson: I recently finished the new Winter Classic masks for this coming Winter Classic game — it’s incredibly exciting to do those masks for Pekka Rinne and Ben Bishop. Both those masks are made in a very retro style, a more classic look. Sometimes I do more flashy stuff, like I did for Ben Bishop a couple years ago, when I made him a glow-in-the-dark mask. That was extremely popular when that came out.

SN: I read that you teach young artists as well.

Gunnarsson: It was around 10 years ago that I started my own airbrush school. I have classes here in my studio — it’s very fun to meet other painters, young and old. It’s not always me who’s teaching, sometimes I learn more from them.

SN: You mentioned your studio, the Paint Barn — it’s certainly a unique one. What does your studio and its history mean to you?

Gunnarsson: It means a lot to me because I grew up on the countryside. My grandfather, he was a farmer, so I grew up on his farm. I remember when I was a kid, it was only cows here. Now me and my wife have three kids, and we live at his farm. We’ve changed the barn so now, instead of cows, we have my paint studio here. It’s extremely personal to me, and it feels so creative to me to work in this environment.

SN: What do you think about the importance of having that reminder of your roots, even with all the success that’s come?

Gunnarsson: It’s very important to me. Because I’m a very simple guy, just a simple farmer boy. Nothing could be better for me than working here at my farm.

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