It has become a tradition now, something Todd and Hunter Miska do before every hockey season. The father and son from Stacy, Minn., team up to create an art project on a rather unconventional canvas: a goalie mask.
Their latest piece has been on display every Friday and Saturday in the Minnesota Duluth net. During a sensational rookie season as UMD’s goalie, Hunter has proudly shown off a bright gold mask adorned with images of the Bulldogs logo, Duluth’s Lift Bridge and his own pet bulldog, Bo. This week, the exhibit travels to Chicago for public viewing at a much larger venue: the Frozen Four at Chicago’s United Center.
With the position open when the season began, Miska seized the UMD net and never let go. He is among five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goaltender, and backstopped the third-ranked Bulldogs to the West Regional championship and a date against No. 2 Harvard in Thursday’s NCAA semifinals.
It’s been a swift ascent for the son of acclaimed goalie-mask painter Todd Miska. Hunter didn’t start playing the position until he was 14, but he proved to be a prodigy, as well as an eager model and collaborator for his dad’s wearable art.
“It’s really fun being able to design my mask and my gear,’’ said Miska, who is 15-0-3 since Jan. 14 and 26-4-5 overall. “It’s just a really cool thing to do, and my dad loves it. He’s done some awesome paint jobs for me.
“I’ve always loved the position, since the first time I tried it. To be the last line of defense for your team, to stop pucks and give your team a chance to win and battle every day, it’s great.’’
Todd Miska is overjoyed at his son’s success, but not surprised. Since Hunter was little, he has spent time around his father’s famous clients, whose dedication to a half-brave, half-crazy profession seemed to rub off on him.
“He walks and talks the position every day,’’ said Todd Miska, who has created masks for former Wild goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, as well as retired NHL stars Miikka Kiprusoff and Evgeni Nabokov. “Hunter has so much passion for the position and the game. For him to start so late and reach this pinnacle, it’s just unbelievable.’’
The first time Hunter played goalie was on his squirt team, where every player had to take a turn. He loved it, but his mother, Sabina, thought he was a better forward and wanted him to stay at that position.
But because of his father’s work, Hunter got to know many goalies and grew interested in more than their gear. He talked with them when they visited Todd’s home and studio, and when Todd delivered masks, Hunter would tag along. By the time Hunter was a teenager, he thought he might have missed his chance to play in net — until a lunch with Harding showed him what was possible.
“He told me his dad didn’t want him to play goalie, and he didn’t start until he was 14,’’ Hunter said. “I thought, ‘I still have time. I can still do something with this.’ And from that point on, I was a goalie.’’
Miska played two seasons at North Branch High School before moving on to the U.S. national team development program in Michigan. Later he excelled in the junior ranks, becoming the top goaltender in the British Columbia Hockey League during two seasons with Penticton before spending one year with Dubuque of the U.S. Hockey League. Miska was named USA Hockey’s goalie of the year in 2015-16, when he led Dubuque to the Clark Cup finals.
That extended stint at the junior level gave Miska time to grow in every way. Now 6-1 and 175 pounds, he brought a wealth of experience to UMD, which helped him claim a job left open when Kasimir Kaskisuo signed a free-agent contract with Toronto last summer after two seasons.
Kaskisuo set scads of program records at UMD, leaving a gaping void. Miska rose to the top of a three-man group to become the starter. He is the first Bulldogs goalie to start his college career 6-0-0 and is second in the nation in victories (26) and win percentage (81.4). Miska also has tied the school record with five shutouts and is 16-1-1 in road games.
“Nothing bothers him,’’ UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “He has the same great demeanor all the time, which is a great trait for a goalie.
“Once he got going and got solidified in the position, he gave our team a lot more confidence. And he’s just a likable kid who gets on the ice and works hard. He’s been extremely important to our success.’’
The bigger the stage, Miska said, the better he likes it. He proved that two weeks ago, when he was named the most valuable player of the NCAA West Regional. Miska stopped 62 of 66 shots in a pair of overtime victories over Ohio State and Boston University, finishing with a 1.79 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
Just as Miska followed his muse into the net, he has followed his dad into the studio. The two have collaborated on designs for all of Hunter’s masks, with Hunter sketching out ideas — and sometimes crafting the finished product. When his dad was busy with paying jobs, Hunter painted two of his own masks.
While Todd Miska praised his son’s artistic talent, Hunter doesn’t plan to turn that hobby into a profession any time soon. His job this weekend is to create something beautiful on the ice in Chicago, where the Bulldogs will try for their second NCAA title.
“We feel really well prepared,’’ he said. “This is a great group of guys, and our veterans have had a lot of success. It’s been an unbelievable season, right from the get-go. We just want to keep it going.’’