NHL helmets come to life with airbrushed flair

Steve Mason unzipped the bag and inside found zombie heads with mouths agape staring right back at him through whitewashed eyes.

Mason removed his newly painted goalie helmet, the latest piece of art for his collection, and pinpointed Philadelphia Flyers teammates who have been transformed into decaying faces and rotting corpses. There was Claude Giroux, with white eyes matching the color of the captains' patch on his jersey. Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek may as well have lumbered straight off the set of Michael Jackson's ''Thriller'' video.

''Beautiful,'' Mason said, rotating his helmet to eye each ghoulish character.

Mason's helmet does more than protect his noggin from pucks whipped in his direction on a daily basis. It's a symbol of his love for both ghouls and his teammates, a colorful sign of respect for the guys on the ice who watch his back.

The helmet was made by airbrush ace Franny Drummond, one of a very few NHL helmet artists who make the designs come to life. He ''zombified'' several Flyers for Mason's latest helmet, creating perhaps the most frightening mask this side of Jason Voorhees.

''I just think it looks cool on a helmet,'' Mason said. ''Ever since I was a young goaltender, I always thought the scary-looking helmets were the coolest ones.''

The 41-year-old Drummond littered his desk with pictures of the Flyers he used as a template for his work. Drummond then picked up his Iwata airbrush loaded with orange clear-coat automotive paint - picked because of its durability, not its $400 a gallon price tag - and held it a pinch away from his sanded white helmet and went to work with a surgeon's precession.

''It's not the most exciting thing,'' Drummond said, ''but when it's finished it gets exciting. You have to wait for it to all come together.''

Drummond creates the kind of helmet art that had one collector paying $4,000 for a one-of-a-kind Winter Classic-themed piece.

He has created masks for NHL goalies including Boston's Tuukka Rask, Brian Boucher and Montreal Canadiens prospect Mike Condon. Condon's helmet has state troopers painted on one side in honor of his father and ''Band of Brothers'' on the other for his favorite TV show. Canadiens and Princeton logos are both on helmet, as well as Condon's family crest.

Drummond, a former goalie who still plays in adult hockey leagues, had his art displayed in the NHL equivalent of the Louvre when Boucher and Michael Leighton both wore his helmets in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.

He has built a business by airbrushing just about any type of object, from a bus for a radio host to motorcycles, welders masks and walls. He worked for a time on the show ''Extreme Makeover,'' and recalled frantically putting the finishing touches on bedrooms while host Ty Pennington yelled ''Move that bus!'' as the show neared its finale.

Drummond studied at Miami International University of Art & Design and custom painted in his PaintZoo shop for 18 years.

He's a Flyers fanatic, and became involved with the organization when he created artwork for a former Flyer for a charity event. He was introduced to Flyers equipment manager Derek Settlemyre and that led to his first helmet for Ray Emery in the 2010 Winter Classic. The mask was decorated as a tribute to former team goalies Ron Hextall, Bernie Parent and Pelle Lindbergh.

Boucher liked what he saw and became his next client. Drummond's work soon caught the attention of Bauer, one of the leading hockey equipment manufacturers. Drummond signed with Bauer and became a certified painter for the NHL helmet kings.

The helmets range from $400 a mask for youth hockey players up to about $2,000 for the adult versions.

Drummond is one of seven artists used by Bauer, most notably Swedish artist Dave Gunnarsson, who paints about 65 percent of NHL helmets.

''Whenever there's a third party involved, we've learned the process gets ruined a little bit,'' said Lee Britt, custom goalie manager at Bauer. ''We've learned over time it's best for the player and artist figure out what the design is going to be. Sometimes the teams will have a little bit of input.''

Drummond's masterpieces occasionally go bust. He worked for about 10 days on Ilya Bryzgalov's helmet for the 2012 Winter Classic, only for the Flyers goalie to get benched for the big game. And he sent ''Star Wars'' nerds into a frenzy when he painted Yoda's lightsaber Flyers orange instead of green.

Drummond has been Mason's personal artist for two years.

''I'd put his work up against anyone else's in the world,'' Mason said. ''I've seen a lot of goaltenders' masks through the years, and seeing his up close and personal, the amount of detail he puts in there, it's second to none.''

Mason was razzed last season when his helmet failed to include any defensemen. Nicklas Grossmann and Luke Schenn made the cut this week and so did some members of the team's equipment staff. He had asked for the new helmet to change his mojo after an 0-4-1 start to the season, and he also needed a darker cage because the brightness of the new state-of-the-art lighting system at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center has made it tougher to see the puck during a game.

The helmet wasn't unveiled until Monday. Mason broke in the helmet at practice and it made its NHL debut Tuesday night against Edmonton. Mason made 35 saves to earn his first win of the season as Philadelphia beat the Oilers 4-1.

Mason uses two to three masks per season and keeps a shrine of them, a timeline of his career that is capped by Drummond's glittering pieces.

''These are more than helmets,'' Drummond said, ''they're keepsakes.''

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