By Joe Haggerty
A pair of goaltenders facing off against each other in the Stanley Cup Final both wearing his hand-crafted goalie masks has been a welcomed, satisfying sight for Pro Choice custom goalie mask maker Dom Malerba. It’s something that he, and Vaughn Hockey, are both rightfully beaming with pride about it.
Given the hours, effort and sweat equity he’s put into crafting custom made goalie masks for the last 30 years, and the thousands of goaltenders that have sworn by masks custom made with a mold of their individual faces, it’s something the Middleton, Mass. resident should take a few minutes to enjoy after seven of the final eight goalies still going in the postseason were enthusiastic customers.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Malerba, who has been in a partnership with both Vaughn and Bauer hockey as their main mask-maker for years. “If you look back on this in the Finals, I think this is the first time both goalies in the Cup Finals will be dressed head-to-toe in Vaughn [Goalie Equipment]: mask, stick, gloves, blockers, pads…everything. Even the chest protectors are all Vaughn. I don’t think it’s ever happened before.
“It’s a hard decision [on who to root for] because they’re both good guys. We didn’t get to know Martin Jones [in Boston], but he’s a really nice guy. Matt Murray is a good kid. Very cool. They’re both very easy. We just make the same [mask] for them year after year. I didn’t get to see Murray play until last year at Wilkes-Barre a little bit, but we noticed Martin Jones in Manchester as soon as we saw him play. Just the size and the way he moves around, he’s very agile for a tall kid.”
It’s also a sight Malerba almost didn’t get to enjoy after being wheeled out of Hockey Town in Saugus several years ago following a heart attack in the crease amid weekend warrior duty at a men’s league game.
Luckily for Malerba and the hundreds of elite goalies that depend on him as the only custom designer of their masks, it was more a warning shot than anything else. Instead Malerba survived the scary incident, had a couple of stents installed and now religiously runs three miles every day with his Pit Bull. It’s clearly worked given the 35 pounds he’s dropped since undergoing the heart scare, and it has given Malerba renewed perspective on the custom goalie mask business he’s built for himself from the ground up over the last three decades.
“I don’t stress out about things anymore. I don’t eat badly when I’m on the road,” said Malerba. “I’m not going down that road again. It was the rear artery, and it was a big wakeup call. I didn’t pass out. My back was on fire, and my triceps were burning. I was just going to go home, but lucky for me somebody on my team called an ambulance.”
It all started with Malerba, a former Malden Catholic goalie, crafting a mask for Andy Moog on a bit of a whim in 1986 during Moog’s run with the Boston Bruins. The lifelong goalie had been forced to make one for himself during his MC high school days when a Canadian company, Harrison Masks, never shipped him the custom mask he paid for. So he’d already begun to develop the 10,000 hours of practice one needs to perfect their chosen vocational skill by the time he got his shot with an NHL goaltender.
“My first mask was with Andy Moog way back when. I had built up a relationship with [Bruins equipment manager] Ken “Doc” Fleger, and he was willing to give me a shot. Andy also didn’t want to wait two years for a new mask. I remember his wife saying to me ‘You better make this safe, or I’m coming after you.’ So I put a little extra Kevlar in that one. It was a hobby. That’s how it started. To get a mask back then you had to make a trip to Canada. After a year-and-a-half of not getting my mask, I made my own,” said Malerba, who also did the pain job for Moog’s mask three decades ago before farming out the paint jobs to a score of artists around the world. “To this day I still have never received the mask. But I remember coming home from [the custom molding] and thinking that I could do that myself. I thought I’d love to take a shot at it myself someday.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but as time went on it got easier. Things that used to take me three hours to do now will take me 10 minutes, and I always have four masks in motion in the work shop. I come in here to tinker with things on Sunday mornings. I love doing this.”
Moog was the doorway to a word-of-mouth NHL business when he loved the mask Malerba molded for him, and soon he was becoming friendly with guys like Olaf Kolzig while building up a portfolio of top shelf clients. Tuukka Rask, Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith and Jake Allen are among his most notable clients, but the list grows each and every season. That brings us to this week, and Malerba and Vaughn Hockey counting both youngsters Matt Murray and Martin Jones as clients, and watching with excitement to see how their masks hold up on hockey’s biggest stage.
The pain-staking effort made to craft the masks is certainly worth it for the goaltenders that depend on them for safety, and, of course, for performance.
“We had to have our masks submitted for testing two years ago. They dropped it from 25 feet onto an anvil three times, and my mask never broke,” said Malerba of his masks, which are $1,800 per mask prior to the paint job. “The other ones are breaking. They’re made in China. They don’t know what they’re doing.
“I get calls now about chips in the paint jobs on the mask. I’ll be like ‘Yeah, well did you get hurt?’ These guys are worried about the paint jobs. I tell them to go shoot pucks at a car, and see how that paint job holds up afterward.”
Malerba has never had a mask crack on one of his goalies in 30 years of 100-mph slap shots being fired at them, and he now basically has to turn people away for requests with a limit of 200 masks made per calendar year. He supplies masks to goalies for the NHL, minor leagues and collegiate level along with the requests for high school goalies with money for their own custom cage.
“I’m a one-man show here, pretty much. I don’t do any of the paint jobs, but I do all of the masks for [Vaughn]. Now it’s to a point where we get going. There’s no down time for me at any time of the year,” said Vaughn, who used the spring and summer months to get the masks ready for training camps all over the world this fall. “I never slow down, but the next four months are the busiest for me.”
It’s a workload that keeps him busy 12 months a year, and has him traveling all over North America to hockey rinks to make individual face molds for each of his goaltenders. It’s not uncommon to see Malerba and business partner Paul Cena at any rink along the NHL circuit if they need to make a new mold, or have an adjustment that needs to made to a cage.
It also makes him privy to some pretty fun facts like:
*Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin are the only puck-stopping clients that have gold-plated cages with 24-karat paint on their masks. It’s an opulent look that Malerba initially thought up, and it understandably adds hundreds of dollars to the overall value/cost of the mask.
*Malerba once had an NCAA goaltender request that he have a naked woman included as part of the paint job on the mask, but the mask-maker chuckled while saying he outright declined that one before his college had a chance to.
*The Bruins could have had goalie Olaf Kolzig instead of Jim Carrey in the Adam Oates trade with the Washington Capitals, but the suspicion is that Harry Sinden wanted the local kid in Carey rather than the European Kolzig. Malerba said his favorite mask he’s ever made of all-time was the MechaGodzilla paint job mask for the longtime Capitals goalie, a theme he said he worked on with the goalie.
*Malerba was the first one to craft a goalie mask-style helmet for a baseball catcher when he did one for the late John Marzano with the Red Sox, but he hasn’t made another since as some Major League catchers have adopted goalie mask-style helmets for themselves.
Despite the health scare, the goalie artisan has no plans on slowing down his production anytime soon. Malerba estimates he can keep providing custom goalie masks for the next 30 years as the only person in the world willing and able to the job in a world where everything is seemingly becoming mass-produced junk. The Pro’s Choice custom made masks are far from it, and Malerba has 30 years of living, puck-stopping proof to back it up.
*Not sure what to make of it, but power forward Max Jones was the only draft-eligible prospect expected to get selected in the first round that totally skipped the media portion of last week’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo. The powerful, productive Jones plays with an attitude and has shown the ability to score goals at elite levels of competition, but he also seems to have suspensions and on-ice discipline challenges as part of the overall package. He’s certainly on the Bruins radar behind guys like Charlie McAvoy and Dante Fabbro with the No. 14 pick, but don’t be surprised if he’s one of the names called by the Black and Gold should he drop all the way to the last couple of picks in the first round.
*Good luck to Max Talbot, who leaves the Bruins organization for the KHL after signing a one-year contract with Lokomotiv. Talbot was a good guy that kept a positive attitude through a lot of difficult professional challenges with the B’s while spending much of last season in the AHL, and he always seemed to have things in good perspective. The skating speed and the skill level has perhaps waned a bit in his mid-30’s after playing a gritty style for the Penguins, Flyers, Avs and Bruins for so many years, but he’ll bring plenty of good qualities off the ice for whatever team he’s on.
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.