GLENDALE, Ariz. - Their faces hidden, many hockey goalies distinguish themselves with the elaborate designs painted on their masks.
During his 10 NHL seasons, Jason LaBarbera used his mask to illustrate his love of wrestling and hard-rock music, adorning his lids with images of Metallica, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, wrestlers like Undertaker and Brett (The Hitman) Hart.
This season, the Phoenix Coyotes backup goalie is using his mask to pay tribute to someone he never met yet holds a great deal of respect for: NFL star turned war hero Pat Tillman.
"To see him, as a professional athlete, stop doing what he had worked his whole life toward to do something he thought was right—join the Army and go over and do what he did—is a pretty amazing thing," LaBarbera said. "Nobody else can say that. It's a pretty special thing he did, so this is a representation of what he did and everyone that's fighting over there."
Tillman was a fan favourite in Arizona, first with Arizona State and later with the NFL's Cardinals. He became a national icon when he left behind millions of dollars and a newlywed wife to join the Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Tillman was killed by friendly fire in 2006 and his life, the way he lived it and how it ended, became an inspiration to people around the world.
LaBarbera never met Tillman—his first season in Phoenix was 2009-10—but his story resonates, in part because he's heard so much about Tillman living in the Valley of the Sun, but also because he has many of the same values.
"Barbs is just a classy guy, one of the best people you'll ever meet, just is a good man," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "To be able to honour someone as iconic as Pat in the Valley and in the country just shows Barbs' class. It's been a few years and to just bring that to the surface and remind everybody what true sacrifice is, is remarkable."
LaBarbera came up with the idea of a Tillman-inspired mask over the summer and traded concepts with Toronto-based artist David Arrigo, who has painted masks for numerous NHL goalies.
The design they came up with is impressive.
The left side of the mask features a large image of Tillman's face from the now-iconic photo of him in an Army Ranger beret overlaid with images of Tillman playing football and hugging his brother, Kevin.
The right side features a soldier and a military aircraft. The front—which protects the neck—has a yellow ribbon in the middle, Phoenix's howling Coyotes logo on one side, a paw print on the other.
The backdrop of the entire helmet is covered with a red-and-white camouflage of sorts that includes stars and maple leaves (LaBarbera is Canadian).
"You come up with a theme, a kind of idea of what you want it to look like and go back and forth," LaBarbera said. "I think it turned out well."
LaBarbera also decided to take the tribute to Tillman a step further.
For every win he gets during the 2011-12 season, he plans to donate $420—Tillman's number was 42—to the Pat Tillman Foundation. It was started by Pat's widow, Marie, and provides support to military service members and their families.
"The Pat Tillman Foundation thanks Jason LaBarbera for his unique tribute to Pat and his creativity in bringing awareness to the sacrifices of all military families and veterans and we're honoured that he selected the Tillman Military Scholars program as his charity of choice," Marie Tillman said.
LaBarbera broke out the mask at practice this week and numerous teammates stopped to take a look and ask him about it. The new lid has generated a pretty good buzz online, too, with fans and sites all over heaping praise on LaBarbera's choice and Arrigo's design.
It has, in other words, blown up just like LaBarbera had hoped.
"As another professional athlete, there's thousands of us around the world and he was the only one who could do what he did," LaBarbera said. "It's a pretty amazing thing. I couldn't even imagine doing that. I don't think anybody could imagine doing that."
At least now, with his mask, LaBarbera can keep the image of Tillman and what he did in people's minds.