Curtis McElhinney wanted to say something, but he didn’t have the words. What the Lightning backup goaltender did have was a canvas that only 62 NHL players share: a goalie mask.
He reached out to teammate Mathieu Joseph, the Lightning’s only Black player, and asked for help designing a mask that would reflect the fight for racial justice.
That was about three months ago. The new goalie mask featuring prominent Black athletes arrived Wednesday in the NHL’s Toronto bubble. Joseph joked that he didn’t recognize McElhinney when he got on the ice and thought they had a new goaltender.
“I jumped on it right away,” Joseph said of the opportunity presented by McElhinney. “To me, this is a concrete action of doing something that is meaningful. It’s definitely showing a lot of support. I was really honored for him to ask me that.”
The mask depicts Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in major-league baseball; Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL; Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black sprinters from the United States who raised their gloved fists atop the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City; Alice Coachman, the first Black American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics in London; and Muhammad Ali, the legendary heavyweight boxer who spent nearly a lifetime fighting racial injustice and inequality.
Joseph said they’re all athletes who made an impact outside of their sport, on a social level. It was important, he said, to select athletes who had gone through a tough time getting started, yet remained dedicated to making the world better.
“For me, personally, it’s something I’ll be honored to wear,” McElhinney said. “I think it’s a good representation of certain individuals who had difficult times and stood up for what they believed in, and were an important voice during their careers.”
McElhinney said he reached out to Joseph after the latter shared a post on George Floyd’s death. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking protests nationwide on issues of police brutality and systematic racism.
“I didn’t really feel qualified to put it down in words,” McElhinney said. “I think sometimes that artwork and allowing someone to create something that comes from the heart is personally a better way to show my support.”
Joseph worked with mask artist David Leroux of Montreal on the design. McElhinney said for him, the finished product was more of a surprise.
The mask’s arrival was all the more timely after the league postponed two days of playoff games at the players’ request last week to promote conversation around race. The players responded after NBA and WNBA players sat out their games in protest, along with some major-league baseball teams.
Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn said it was the first time he had been involved in conversations concerning race. Joseph said he appreciated his white teammates wanting to talk about racial issues in hockey and outside the sport.
Those discussions spread beyond players. Joseph said he was at the hotel pool and ended up talking with NHL employees he did not previously know.
“I think it helped, what we did a couple days ago (postponing games),” Joseph said. “To show the support but also to show people there’s a conversation to have and you’re able to talk about it.”