Behind the scenes with goalie mask artist Dave Gunnarsson

Dave Gunnarsson has made a name for himself as the goalie mask artist to many NHL netminders -- and he works out of a barn in Sweden. Courtesy of Dave Gunnarsson

Many years ago, moos and oinks filled this bright red barn.

Set in the countryside of Sweden in Sävsjö, it served as an integral part of a farm owned by Swedish artist David Gunnarsson's grandfather. Now, the barn is the dedicated area where Gunnarsson paints the masks of some of the NHL's top goaltenders.

He's set up over a thousand square feet for his painting supplies. Airbrushes and paint dominate spaces where cows and pigs once roamed. He made it clear that there aren't any animals around while he paints.

"Well, sometimes our dog will come and visit," Gunnarsson said.

For the past 27 years, Gunnarsson has played a key role in evolving goalie masks from featureless Jason Voorhees styles into canvases of everything from glow-in-the-dark art to Lego Batman.

His eye-popping and creative designs are unique to the sport of hockey.

Football players are often hidden behind helmets that bear the colors of their respective teams. Custom sneakers or cleats with bright colors are common among major U.S. sports, yet it's rare for someone to touch them up with drawings.

Gunnarsson is one of the go-to artists who continues to add a fun side to hockey.

"It's one of those things that you almost feel like a little kid again every time you get to design one," said Los Angeles Kings goalie Cam Talbot, who has worked with Gunnarsson for 13 years.

Through the years, Gunnarsson has painted for top NHL goalies such as Henrik Lundqvist and Dominik Hasek. In the 2014 Olympic gold-medal match, he designed the masks worn by both goalies: Sweden's Lundqvist and Canada's Carey Price. He also recently designed a mask honoring Lundqvist's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This season, Gunnarsson painted a pixelated Elvis Presley for Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins and mixed 3D and 2D art for a Statue of Liberty-themed mask for New York Rangers star Igor Shesterkin.

Gunnarsson's designs offer a deeper layer for goalies. Not only do they feel like kids again, but it allows fans to learn more about who they are as people.

"I tend to see my masks as a way of showing a little bit more about myself," Boston Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark said. "I don't have any tattoos on my body, but I live out my fantasies and ideas maybe throughout my masks, and that's, you know, it's very personal."

BORN INTO A farming family, Gunnarsson began painting for local goalies in Sweden at 16 years old. His first professional goalie mask design came when he was 19, via Swedish team HV71.

Awareness of Gunnarsson's talent spread, with more top local teams calling him.

"[They said] it's the guy there in the forest painting masks," he said.

Gunnarsson's popularity reached Ullmark, who admitted that, growing up, he would try to mimic Gunnarsson, using pen and paper to draw the masks the artist would paint.

"When I actually had the opportunity to work with him, it was an awesome experience and opportunity," Ullmark said. "Something that I always wanted to do when I was a little boy."

Once Gunnarsson's local clients started to move to the NHL in the late 1990s, they wanted to work exclusively with him.

His first NHL goalie was Johan Hedberg, known as "Moose." Gunnarsson served as Hedberg's mask painter for 16 years, creating multiple renditions of masks with a moose on them.

Gunnarsson wants to be as versatile as possible as an artist. No matter the request -- whether it's scary or photorealistic or cartoonish -- Gunnarsson prides himself on being comfortable with it.

"I really tried from when I was a young boy to be as good as possible to paint anything," he said.

And his work proves it.

In 2015, Gunnarsson surprised then-Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop with a mask that had the Tampa Bay logo glow in the dark. Bishop loved it so much he asked for the entire thing to glow in the dark, which Gunnarsson replicated throughout Bishop's career.

Danish goalie Frederik Andersen often wanted a Lego figure on his masks, since the company is based in his home country. Gunnarsson happily obliged with different versions, adding an Anaheim Ducks-themed Lego man when Anderson was with the team.

This season, Gunnarsson painted a special mask for Ullmark to mark the Bruins' 100th anniversary season. Ullmark paid tribute by focusing on the top players or moments from the last century.

He landed on two famous goals -- Bobby Orr's in Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, and Patrice Bergeron's in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Both moments are painted in stylized Bruins that appear on opposite sides of the masks.

"I might have my own insecurities about what the results [are] going to be," Ullmark said. "But in the end, whenever he sends over the finished product, I'm always blown away by how quick and how efficient, but also how detailed."

Some of Gunnarsson's top masks have involved popular actors and characters in TV shows.

Talbot recently requested a Will Ferrell-themed mask that includes Ferrell's famous Ron Burgundy character. Talbot knew Ferrell attended many Kings games and said Ferrell is one of his favorite actors of all time.

"I watch every single one of his movies, doesn't matter what it is," Talbot said. "I think I saw 'Anchorman' probably 50 times when I was in high school."

Therefore, a mask with Ron Burgundy on it wasn't something out of the question. Kings equipment manager Darren Granger told Talbot no one had ever done a Ferrell-themed mask, so Talbot sent the idea to Gunnarsson, who quickly sent a sketch. Talbot offered input, then Gunnarsson tweaked and painted it.

Actors have hopped in the process too. Gunnarsson collaborated with Michael J. Fox in 2015 to create a "Back To The Future"-themed mask for Lundqvist.

"I'm a huge movie nerd, and I love Michael J. Fox and the 'Back to the Future' movies," Gunnarsson said. "So it was like magic for me to do a 'Back to the Future'-style mask, and Michael J. Fox was involved in it."

In 2015, then-New Jersey Devils goalie Scott Wedgewood wanted a famous Devils fan to be on his mask -- "Seinfeld" character David Puddy.

In the 1995 "Seinfeld" episode "The Face Painter," Puddy, played by Patrick Warburton, showed off his Devils fandom with special face paint. Wedgewood's "Seinfeld" love prompted him to ask Gunnarsson about a Puddy-themed mask with the classic Devils design.

It caught the attention of Warburton's wife, who reached out to Gunnarsson for a replica.

"So David Puddy has his own Puddy mask," Gunnarsson said.

THROUGH ALL OF the special requests, goalies credit the artist for how easy he is to work with.

Changes can be made until the last moment. Ullmark said that before Gunnarsson puts on the final coat, he will check in to make sure the sketch is exactly what the goalie wants.

Coming up with ideas can be difficult too, but Gunnarsson's cooperation makes it easier. He offers input yet doesn't take over the conversation. His personality allows him to come up with ideas that better suit each goalie.

Talbot highlighted Gunnarsson's ability to "just rip [masks] out."

"He just loves what he does, and you can tell," Talbot said. "It comes out in his work; it comes out in his enthusiasm in the emails and stuff like that. But, once the sketch is agreed upon, he'll literally paint the mask in a day and a half or two days. I don't know how he does it."

Gunnarsson's details are what separate him from other artists.

There's often an extra layer to his designs that can only be identified when you see them up close. At times, an image of the mask is only half the picture.

"The details, the intricacies that he puts into his art. The holograms in the background that you can only see in different light and stuff like that," Talbot said. "The depth to his designs are pretty incredible."

But his impact reaches another level.

Goalies said that growing up, the mask designs drew them to the position. It added motivation to one day have the opportunity to design their own. Being able to come up with ideas and design the mask has a special meaning.

"It brings back those memories when you were young and dreaming away, of having your own mask and creating something that's you and that is yours," Ullmark said.