When NHL goaltenders go looking for new art to adorn their signature masks, more than half of them reach across the Atlantic to an artist who works on a remote farm in southwestern Sweden.
He's the painter behind Ben Bishop's glow-in-the-dark lightning masks. He has rendered "Optimus Reim" onto those worn by James Reimer; the Tragically Hip for Braden Holtby; Wayne's World for Scott Darling. And he's produced a variety of images for Henrik Lundqvist since the Swedish star was a teenager.
Deep in the countryside of Norra Ljunga, David Gunnarsson works away inside a barn he has transformed into a modern painting studio for his company, DaveArt. Surrounded by paint bottles and airbrush guns, the self-taught artist paints characters and logos onto the goalie masks, often accenting with his signature glow-in-the-dark paint, glitter, 3D effects, or holograms revealed only at certain angles.
In today's NHL, the mask does more than protect a goalie's head from flying pucks. It's also a billboard to showcase his personality and his brand. While he isn't the only mask-painter around, Gunnarsson has cornered the market of his niche business working from a studio in a barn 350 kilometres southwest of Stockholm. His talent, on display nightly at arenas around the NHL, is in creating something original for every customer.
Gunnarsson started a small art business when he was just 16, dashing the hopes his grandfather had that he would some day take over the family farm. He spent his nights and weekends working on cartoons for local newspapers and magazines, or airbrushing custom designs for motorcycles and helmets. Today, the 40-year-old artist – who never actually played hockey himself – works with his clients in an effort to get inside the heads of NHL netminders such as Carey Price and Pekka Rinne, and bring their ideas to life.
There are other talented mask-painters with NHL clients – many right here in North America – but it's tough to rival the number of NHL goalies Gunnarsson has as clients today. He bedazzles masks with their wildest imaginings – everything from superheroes to rock bands, hockey legends to cartoon characters, cherished family memories to city landmarks. Since his work first appeared on NHL ice in 2001, he's been a key trendsetter in this industry.
"I love getting to know every goalie, and coming up with ideas about how to tell that person's story on a mask," Gunnarsson said by telephone from Sweden. "Some of the goalies come here to the barn in summer, and we drink coffee and look out at the cows and we brainstorm. I'm a big nerd when it comes to new paint techniques and effects. I always have new ideas ready to be unleashed in the new hockey season."
Gunnarsson painted his first goalie mask in 1996 when local Swedish Hockey League team HV71 asked him to paint masks for its goalies. The budding artist, who had grown up doodling cartoons and thinking about a career in animated movies, was brimming with ideas.
"I painted them with all kinds of monsters and stuff. I was not the first here in Sweden to paint goalie masks in that way, but I tried to think outside the box and do unique things," Gunnarsson said. "I put so much time into every one to make sure I created a story on every mask. I had an explosion of orders after that."
Gunnarsson went on to work for many Swedish hockey teams, several of them with promising young goaltenders who had yet to make inroads into the NHL, such as Lundqvist and Johan Hedberg.
Hedberg's big break turned into a major opportunity for Gunnarsson, too. Late in the 2001 season, the Swedish goalie was dealt from the Manitoba Moose of the IHL to the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. His new black, white and gold Pens uniform didn't match with the bright blue mask he'd worn in Manitoba – one Gunnarsson had fashioned with a big cartoon moose.
Hedberg captivated Penguins fans quickly as he helped backstop the team to the Eastern Conference final; they'd bellow "Mooooooose!" after every big save. Hedberg had the option to order a new mask from Gunnarsson during that playoff run, but opted to keep wearing his lucky, well-loved Moose bucket.
"So that was David's first mask in the NHL, and it was so well received that we wanted to keep the moose in some fashion for every one of my masks," said Hedberg by phone from California, where he is now the San Jose Sharks' goaltending coach. "It became a pretty regular thing that I'd be out by the red line before a game stretching, and the other goalies would be there, too, and sometimes ask me 'hey, who does your masks?' I'd say 'I have this guy in Sweden – he's unbelievable,' and they'd all want his contact information."
As Hedberg moved on to play for various NHL teams, new teammates and fans took notice of each new mask. Hedberg was one of the first to spread the word about Gunnarsson, and more NHL goalies followed his lead.
"He's become kind of a famous guy, but he's still a very humble small-town boy who just wants every goalie to be happy with his work," Hedberg said. "I'd be like a little kid on Christmas when my new masks would arrive from David, and my kids would come running to see me open the boxes.
"When I went to Dallas, he made the moose into a gunslinger. One year in Atlanta, he made the moose into SpongeBob Squarepants as something special for my kids. In my last year with the Devils, I was going to be 39, so we said 'let's make the moose look old.' So he did him with a loose tooth, a cane and glasses. He gets to know his goalies and makes sure he gets their stories right."
Gunnarsson painted new helmets for his NHL goalies to begin the 2016-17 season, in addition to special World Cup of Hockey helmets for 70 per cent of the netminders in that September event. He also paints for puck-stoppers in the American, Swedish and Kontinental Hockey Leagues.
Art requests this season have ranged from whimsical to frightening, comical to nostalgic. He had loads of demands for "tribute" masks, and used a unique sketch pen to give them a vintage look. The list includes Peter Budaj's nod to Los Angeles Kings' historic stars such as Rogie Vachon; Michal Neuvirth's homage to the Philadelphia Flyers' late owner Ed Snider; and Petr Mrazek's mask for the Detroit Red Wings' farewell season at Joe Louis Arena.
After Bishop's mask in Tampa Bay got so much attention for its glowing bolts last year, Gunnarsson has had more requests for glow-in-the-dark effects. He's festooned a glowing Ghostbusters mask for the Edmonton Oilers' Cam Talbot, and added a pack of frightening luminescent-eyed coyotes to Louis Domingue's Arizona mask.
"At first, that first glowing mask just had a small glow-in-the-dark Lightning monograph on it, about the size of a quarter, so I said to Dave, 'hey, do you think we do the whole thing like that?'" said Bishop by phone from Tampa. "So he did it, and he used inspiration from the Tron movie, and it started a new glow-in-the-dark trend. I wasn't sure what to expect, but everyone loved it, so I'm sticking with glow-in-the-dark masks now."
Hockey equipment company Bauer hired Gunnarsson as its official goalie-mask painter, and commissioned him to create designs for its retail masks to make those hot paint trends available to kids. Bauer launched a line of youth Star Wars masks, and his glow-in-the-dark series is coming soon.
"We had him come to a sales meeting two years ago and he painted masks live in front of our sales reps. The talent and speed with which he painted was so incredible. He finished half a mask that evening right there in front of us," said Mark Gignac, a category manager for goalie equipment at Bauer. "When pro goalies buy masks from us, they get to choose their painter, but more often than not, they are choosing David. We leverage our partnership with him to get more goalies wearing Bauer masks, so we really value him. There's no one else of his global stature."
Gunnarsson politely declined questions about what he charges for a paint job, saying it varies a lot depending on the level of detail requested. However, Bauer says its masks typically sell to an NHL team for about $999, and an artist would charge for the paint job on top of that, usually from $400 up to around $1,800, with premium painters charging on the high end of that scale.
Gunnarsson still works with each pro goalie differently – some from overseas by e-mail, phone or FaceTime; others in person. Some give him a basic idea and let him run with it, while others are involved in every step, such as Lundqvist. The Rangers' star goalie even brought a New York TV crew to Gunnarsson's studio to film their work together for his reality series The Mask.
Goalies send Gunnarsson a plain mask or buy one of the Bauer models he keeps in his stock room. He has staff to sand, prep and assemble the masks. His preliminary sketch is what takes the most time, and that gets approved by the goalie. He paints several masks every week – sometimes as quickly as one a day. He typically has a movie or audio book running in his painting room as he works.
"He's the gold standard for mask painters," said Toronto Maple Leafs' goalie Frederik Andersen, for whom Gunnarsson has painted several masks incorporating Lego, a beloved export of his native Denmark. "I went to his shop for the first time last summer – I wanted to finally meet him in person after working with him for several years."
Gunnarsson may be an industry giant, but he also shares his knowledge. He also runs DaveArt School of Airbrush, where he teaches his techniques to students.
"No matter how long I've done it, I'm always nervous when I send out masks, even though I have painted thousands," Gunnarsson said. "I'm so thankful to every goalie I've worked with."