By Bradley Zorgdrager
Professional hockey player Aaron Dell cemented his nickname through sheer force of will, earning the title “World’s Okayest Goalie” less through performance than apparel. Cheekily worn emblazoned across his chest, the back of his once-trademark shirts might as well read “With The Best Taste In Music.” While the goalie’s been stopping pucks for the likes of the NHL teams San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils and, most recently, Buffalo Sabres and AHL affiliate Rochester Americans, he’s had metal in the back of his mind.
The back of a helmet worn during the 2020-21 season features logos from a who’s who of heavy, such as Slipknot, Of Mice and Men, Ice Nine Kills, Bring Me the Horizon, Motionless In White, As I Lay Dying and more. Aside from some wonky billing decisions, it could look like an absolutely massive festival poster. That’s by design.
“The way I went with that one was it was kind of a lineup of shows that I wanted to see—if I was going to make my own show, that was what it would be,” explains the 32-year-old. “I did it kind of like a festival poster with the whole lineup. … I don't know if I would've had space to fit half of what I would've wanted to put on there, but these are kind of just the ones that I stuck with.”
Notably missing are some key bands in Dell’s adventure to settle into metalcore as his preferred subgenre. From his dad playing in an ‘80s style hair metal band (Assailant) and blaring the likes of Metallica and Ozzy Osborne around his house, he reveals metal “was kind of the mainstream in my household as a kid.”
While those acts may not fit in with his helmet’s overall roster as well, the liminal band in his life could have. Dell found Avenged Sevenfold when he was getting into high school, as they were entering the mainstream with “Bat Country.” The Orange County mainstays were his introduction to screaming in music, despite City of Evil shifting the balance to M. Shadows’ trademark nasally croon over anything more guttural.
Dell admits he probably should have included them, but there were a few further considerations. He’d seen them already, and he decided to focus on acts he’d yet to have the pleasure—or ones that are huge hockey fans.
That’s the case with Slipknot, specifically drummer Jay Weinberg. The NJ native is a fan of the Devils for whom Dell was playing at the time of that band-ed out bucket. Weinberg actually adorned the backplate piece on a previous mask, alongside latest album We Are Not Your Kind. The title inclusion is perhaps ironic, given that the two actually formed a kinship over goaltending, which led to the two hanging out at Aftershock Festival 2019 and at a stop on the Knotfest Roadshow with Killswitch Engage.
Weinberg’s own goaltending mask features his stage mask, which was actually the inspiration for Dell’s aforementioned tribute to the drummer. More recently, the backplate has honored Weinberg’s predecessor, Joey Jordison.
The front aims to be as menacing as any mask worn by the Nine, taking inspiration from a comic book character.
“I wanted to come up with something that I can switch from team to team and just change the colors of it—that can be one whole kind of menacing piece,” explains Dell before delving into the inspiration. “Mine's based off the Scarecrow, the Arkham City Scarecrow from Batman.”
Fortunately, he has a metalhead friend who splits his time between goaltending and graphic design, making Chance Clark the ideal candidate to keep Dell fresh between the posts.
He has other friends to help him with his other passion: playing guitar. Of Mice and Men guitarist Alan Ashby actually gave Dell his exact Axe-FX tone. The two connected after Dell saw a photo of the metalcore maven playing goalie for the San Jose Jr. Sharks. Dell’s dry sense of humor, summed up by his desire to wear the aforementioned “World’s Okayest Goalie” shirt, comes out when talking about his quarantine Instagram guitar covers—specifically the Of Mice and Men one.
“I’ve got the perfect tone for it. It's the exact one,” laughs Dell, whose jam sessions with Ashby ensure he has the means to nail any Of Mice and Men song.
“I ended up getting some recording software, like I might as well just lay some stuff down. I can play two guitar tracks; I can play one, and then play over it. It turned into, 'This sounds pretty cool. I'm going to have to put some drums to this,' and it just kind of spiraled after that.”
It’s a far cry from his early days as an 11-year-old with his first guitar, on which he swiftly learned Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” before struggling with the much-faster “Master of Puppets.” Since then, he’s built up his skills (“I didn't really learn how to alternate pick for a long time. …. I got a lot better when I figured out how to do that.”) and guitars.
Most recently, he’s been excited to get custom paint jobs on a couple guitars from the same artist who adorns his masks. One of them will be based around the Scarecrow motif from his helmets, while the other will be a composite of all of his masks.
The star of the show, though, is much more practical. Dell sings the praises of his Evertune, a bridge system that keeps guitars perpetually in tune.
“I don't have to sit there and set it up for 10 minutes before I play it. If I've got 10 minutes, I can come play it and I can jump right into it.”
This recently allowed him to learn Beartooth’s “In Between.” Playing time is limited during the season, when travel and practice take up the space between games, so this will help elevate guitar from more of an off-season pursuit.
He stopped hitting the green when he wanted to avoid re-aggravating a lower-back injury. Avoiding the traditional off-season activity is not the only thing that separates him from his teammates and fellow hockey players in general. Though you’re far more likely to hear the likes of Metallica at a hockey game than, say, baseball, he doesn’t know many professional hockey players who are even into popular metal, much less going more underground.
He does his part to evangelize, though, occasionally playing some of his more mellow favorites on in the locker room. Perhaps newer Bring Me the Horizon will pique curiosity while something like Lamb of God could just aggravate ears with its steady screams. Funnily enough, he often finds it’s those you’d least expect who enjoy the music.
It’s the opposite of the reality, where you’d think that hockey’s hard-hitting nature would lend itself to more headbangers. Afterall, take a few hits and you’re bound to strengthen your neck muscles. Might as well use them to headbang.
“Hockey's such an aggressive sport,” highlights Dell. “People that are metal fans a lot of times really enjoy the aggression they get from it, and I think hockey kind of gives you that same aggressive feeling.”