By Ross Forman
Alan Ithal made his first custom sports figure during the 2010-11 hockey season – for his then-7-year-old son, Tyler, who was a goalie for the St. Jude Knights Hockey Club, which has long played its home games at the Southwest Ice Arena in south suburban Crestwood, Illinois.
Ithal adapted a McFarlane Toys figure of former Chicago Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, changing a few things here and there to give it a personal touch.
Tyler loved it, and so did his teammates, who asked the elder Ithal to make one for them, too.
Ultimately, Ithal made one for everyone on the team.
“Seeing the kids’ faces when they see their custom sports figure, their excitement, that’s great,” said Ithal, who has been a Chicago Police officer.
“It’s now just a hobby, a way to make a little extra cash.”
Ithal continues to create through Al Custom Sports Figures, and an online shop he runs through Etsy – a popular website for artists and crafters looking to sell their unique, often homemade, products.
Ithal has made more than 125 custom figures, including one for Chris Sale when he pitched for the Chicago White Sox, Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks, his son’s former goalie coach during his college playing days, and countless other Average Joes.
In fact, his business is driven by youth athletes and youth teams – all looking for that one-of-a-kind remembrance of a play, player, team, season, etc.
Ithal’s custom figures cost $35, plus $7 shipping (if outside of the Chicago area).
Ithal, a longtime card collector, particularly baseball, is now focused personally on his memorabilia collection. He also has long been a McFarlane Toys collector. His favorite sports are hockey and baseball, and he’s loyal to the White Sox, Blackhawks and Bears. Ithal’s favorite athletes are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Paul Konnerko, Chris Sale, Carlton Fisk, Al Secord and Chris Chelios.
Ithal went online to research McFarlanes, to see how others were revising the figures to their own. Then it was trial and error.
He now produces detailed, meticulous figures, which include custom painting, if need be, and even team logo decals. Plus, Ithal’s figures have the name of the youngster, their jersey number, brand of skates, and more.
“I started just keeping (the figure) in (its) original pose, but then (began) cutting it apart to re-design with modeling clay,” Ithal said.
The clay, for instance, is often used to make longer hair than the original athlete.
He’s even used clay to adapt for baseball pitcher Sale’s height and unique arm motion.
Ithal also has had to shave off a player’s beards for kids, and added hair color.
Ithal admits that, yes, they are a challenge to make.
“Part of it is because I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “Others may say (a figure) looks great, but there may be one small detail that will drive me nuts until I get it how I want it,” he said.
Ithal has purchased numerous McFarlane figures, fully intending to dismantle the statue.
Each custom sports takes about 15 to 20 hours to make, depending on how much customization he does.
For instance, he might change the color of a player’s skate laces – from white to yellow, if that’s what they wear.
Ithal has made custom sports figures for athletes in all four major team sports, with hockey being the most popular so far. He also has been asked to make soccer and lacrosse figures. He has made custom sports figures for the Team Illinois AAA Hockey Club, the Chicago Mission Hockey Club, and Oak Lawn Little League teams, as well as the Chicago Fire Department’s football team, among others.
Ithal also made a custom sports figure for NHL player Brent Seabrook – and Ithal had Seabrook sign it.
“He thought it was pretty cool. He seemed pretty excited about it,” Ithal said.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.