The Mask Man: Miska family balances cancer diagnosis, UMD playof - KBJR 6 Your Weather Authority: News, Weather & Sports

The Mask Man: Miska family balances cancer diagnosis, UMD playoff run

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When you drive up to Todd Miska's home in Stacy, Minn., your first thought might be that your lost and have to ask for directions. Seeing chickens in the front yard likely won't change that notion.

But sure enough, when you go inside, and it's like a whole other world.

"What is this place?" Miska says he's often asked. "It's like a hockey heaven. Goalie's paradise."

It's the whole "Field of Dreams" bit, except changed for hockey. It may not actually be heaven, but it's close. It's actually the headquarters of Miska Designs, of which Todd is the owner.

He deals largely in outdoor advertising but more than 25 years ago now, he got a somewhat strange request from a local hockey player.

"It was in the late 1980s," he said. "When that full facemask came in, all of a sudden they showed up from Canada. One goalie wanted his painted up. Then kids see that and go to their team, there's another goalie, and it goes from there. It spread like wildfire,"

After that, the hockey side of Miska's business took off. At its height, he was painting nearly 75 masks a year --- ranging from the NHL all the way down to high school.

"My first big get, so to speak, was Eddie Belfour," Miska said, smiling. "I can remember that one like it was yesterday, Eddie the Eagle."

The business also took Miska to Hollywood --- he worked on the production crew for both Mighty Ducks 2 and Mighty Ducks 3,  and he was asked to paint three separate masks for the latter movie.

"I had no idea where it would take me," he said.

Eventually, his client list included his own son.

"He loved Zambonis," Miska said of his son, Hunter, "and he loved goalie masks."

For several years, though, looking and wondering was all Hunter Miska did. He was able to live vicariously through his dad, in a way, but didn't start playing goalie himself until he was 14 years old.

After that, they were a perfect pair. Father and son, linked with a common love. As Hunter grew up and played more, Todd was always right alongside ready with another design.

This past winter, that journey hit its highest peak yet --- Hunter's freshman season with the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) men's hockey team.

"It's really fun to find out what he wants," Todd said, "really listen, and tell a story with that mask."

So everything was going well, but then the plan changed, and all of a sudden the guy who was used to telling other people's stories now had a story of his own.

"I got some news that I have cancer," Todd said. "It's a head and neck cancer."

There was a lot he didn't know, including how and when to tell Hunter.

"I got the text, and I just broke out crying," Hunter said. "It's just tough to hear that about your own parent."

The news came just before UMD's national playoff run. And it meant instead of the hockey rink, Todd was spending most of his days in a hospital.

"I just remember pretty clearly, letting him that everything's good," Todd said. "You're not going to tell him anything's bad. We'll beat it. You just focus on your game, and that's what he did."

Hunter backstopped UMD first through the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) tournament, and then he was spectacular in two wins at the NCAA West Regional.

"I just had to use that as inspiration," he said, "to give me some fire to play well because I didn't get to have my dad at any of my games."

Hunter quickly became the national darling on UMD, with several of his saves gracing national highlight reels. For Todd, who was watching on television while undergoing radiation treatment, it was awe-inspiring.

"To watch the way he was playing," Todd said, "and every time it seemed like it was a bigger save, that just made me feel better."

UMD, though at times it felt like a team of destiny, fell just short of the national title. Hunter, just a few days later, decided to leave school and sign with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes.

"It was just where I was in my playing career," he said of the decision. "I didn't think I used my dad as part of that. I was just confident in my game and ready to make the move."

That news is tough to top, signing an NHL contract, but just weeks before Hunter was actually headed south to join his new team, his dad found a way to beat it.

Todd was cancer free.

"The weight that was on his shoulders thinking about what was going on," Todd said of his son, "I think he handled it incredibly."

And while the pair won't ever get back that time during Hunter's first and only year at UMD, they can now again look together toward the future.

After all, the saying goes --- what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

"I can look back at that and say, 'Okay, I made it through this. I can make it through anything,'" Hunter said. "Hopefully he can be at my first NHL game."

And with his now clean bill of health, I'm sure his dad won't mind making up for lost time.

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