Late in his second stint as the Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, Stan Lee helped launch Captain America in earnest.
As the comics’ saga went, and as was loosely redone in this decade’s movie series, the character was trapped and preserved in ice late in World War II. He would be thawed, exhumed and enlisted among the Avengers in a March 1964 issue.
What better way to mark that backstory than to perch the hero above a sheet of ice on a mask?
Three hockey goaltenders have done that in the 2010s, concomitant with the character’s prolific appearances in mainstream cinema. They have each brought the cultural crossover into prominence by earning a few shifts in the NHL.
Those seeking anecdotal evidence of Captain America’s international resonance need look no further than Eric Comrie. The Winnipeg Jets prospect split his upbringing between Canada and the United States. Born in Edmonton, he broke into elite hockey in Southern California with the LA Selects program.
Comrie clearly identifies with his native land, first and foremost. He sported the red Maple Leaf in the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, 2015 World Junior Championship and 2017 World Championship.
That, however, did not stop him from embracing his southern neighbor in major junior. Drafted by Tri-City, Comrie devoted his last three amateur seasons to the Americans in Washington State.
How devoted was he to the most contradictory-sounding brand in the Canadian League? He sported the patriotic Marvel character on his lid during his Tri-City tenure from 2011 to 2014.
The brainchild of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon and adopted brainchild of Lee, who passed away Monday at age 95, was having his modern movie breakthrough. Captain America: The First Avenger opened in theaters two months before Comrie’s WHL debut.
As a Conan O’Brien joke that drove into the ground and came back up in another yard suggested, it looked good.
While that crisp assessment applied to the silver screen, it was clearly shared among netminders in relation to their masks. Two Comrie contemporaries representing other patriotism-oriented teams donned Captain America-themed masks early in this decade.
Jack Campbell had played for the U.S. National Team Development Program before breaking into the OHL. The Michigander crossed the border to Windsor for that move, but made his protective artwork blend into a host of IIHF events.
Not the least of those was his third and final appearance at the WJC in 2012. There he had an animated, costumed Steve Rogers throwing his trademark star shield on the earflap.
Between the NTDP and various IIHF events, Campbell has logged 98 games for Team USA, albeit not all with the Captain America lid. Based on achievements, including two tournament goaltending accolades, he is the most prominent of anyone to use the theme.
But one other stopper hit a can’t-miss opportunity to weave the character into his gear. Conor Knapp, a Western New York native, broke into the pros as a Sabres prospect in 2012-13. This meant competing for AHL shifts with none other than his hometown Rochester Americans.
Granted, Knapp has mostly been an ECHL mainstay, including after his release from the Buffalo organizaiton. But for 10 appearances with Rochester over two seasons, he had the Star-Spangled Avenger brandishing the shield and waving the flag on the side of his head. Given pop culture’s hot list at the time, no image worked better above the Amerks’ time-honored stars-and-stripes badge logo.
No immediately available evidence speaks to Lee’s thoughts on the mask motif. Odds are, however, he appreciated the appropriation. Lee himself handled and autographed helmets inspired by two of his most successful co-creations.
According to the collectibles retailer WorthPoint, Lee signed three goalie masks in his interactions with fans. An accompanying image on the website shows the Marvel mogul inscribing a lid with a Spider-Man pattern. Another signed collector’s mask bears an Iron Man theme.
Back on the ice, longtime Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne has loosely incorporated Iron Man, morphing him with his team mascot. In his college days at Minnesota, Adam Wilcox brilliantly capitalized on the character’s natural blend with the Gophers’ maroon-and-gold uniforms.
In the same vein, the definitive Marvel figure has seen memorable NHL action as well. A March 2017 Yardarker caption captured the fashion performance soundly: “Steve Valiquette’s Spider-Man mask works perfectly with the New York Rangers’ color scheme.”
Indeed, the no-nonsense Peter Parker’s eyes in disguise above Valiquette’s own provide a solid distribution of white and red. Below the web warrior’s visage is a blue backdrop of his native New York City. The Rangers’ Lady Liberty alternate logo on Valiquette’s chin continues the fluid theme.
Valiquette, who retired in 2012 after a two-year stint in Russia, is a fellow Canadian of Comrie’s. As such, he never would have been able to transfer that transcendent look from the Rangers to Team USA the way Mike Richter did. Nor did he play long enough to experiment with Captain America when the character had his movie breakout.
But he did finish his North American career in the Blueshirts system, splitting 2009-10 between The Show and the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. In addition, he has taken his post-playing life back to New York, including as a Rangers MSG Network analyst.
As such, his lasting image on the ice comes with the definitively Marvel-ous Manhattan melody.