For almost 30 years, Gary Hanson has transformed his basement into a work shop for making sports helmets.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Hanson made 10 to 12 goalie masks in his Rocky Point house for National Hockey League players, with clients including former Islanders Ron Hextall, Wade Flaherty and Roland Melanson. Hanson's current project is soft-shell girls lacrosse helmets - his first two models are now worn by Shoreham-Wading River sophomores Alexandra Fehmel and Clare Blomberg.
After Fehmel suffered a second concussion as an eighth-grader, her parents sought out Hanson, a family friend, and pitched the idea of constructing a helmet for their daughter. Hard-shell helmets are banned in girls' lacrosse, but soft helmets are approved.
Chris Fehmel, Alexandra's father, who, like many parents of high school athletes, knew his daughter loved lacrosse and wanted to continue playing, brought rough sketches to Hanson. After "about a year of trial and error," Hanson said, they completed a prototype midway through Alexandra's freshman season. Hanson gave the helmets to both girls free of charge.
Hanson, 49, works as a physical therapist in the Traumatic Brain Injuries unit of St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson and still makes hockey goalie masks, mostly for rec-league players.
"Making the masks, I understood the basic concepts of head protection and it carried over a little into this," he said. "Plus, working with head trauma patients, I had some background knowledge."
When Blomberg suffered a third concussion in March, her parents contacted the Fehmels and Hanson. Her helmet, which took a month to make, was ready before she was cleared to return in late April.
The helmets are made of half-inch thick foam and customized for girls' lacrosse with grooves for goggles. Hanson joked that "the ponytail hole was very important" for the helmet. That the material is pliable allows it to be in compliance with girls lacrosse rules.
Fehmel was initially hesitant to wear it, for fear of "looking silly," but she soon adjusted and has noticed the benefits. "It doesn't help a whole lot if you fall and hit your head," she said, "but when I get hit in the head, I hardly feel it."
Word has spread and the Fehmels have been contacted by coaches and parents in the region with helmet inquiries, said Chris Fehmel, who works for Citibank in Manhattan. He and Hanson got a design patent last summer and have discussed getting the helmets mass-produced. No price range for the helmets has been set.
"We just had Alex in mind when we started," Chris Fehmel said. "We were worried for her safety . . . People reached out to us and the business part of it came from that."
Hanson, a Commack native, started making goalie masks in the 80s, following the blueprint of his father, Donald Hanson, who had made him one in 1976 when Gary played club hockey for the Suffolk Ducks. He sold masks to friends, and eventually approached NHL teams. His key sale was to Hextall - then with the Flyers -- in September 1991.
"He was one of the best goalies at the time," said Hanson, whose NHL masks went for $1,100. "Once he started wearing mine, word got around."
"I wouldn't play without it now," said Alexandra Fehmel.