Mason's Wild Ride Makes a Stop in Columbus
In a matter of minutes last Saturday, Steve Mason experienced the full gamut of emotions. Through two periods of the World Junior Championship gold medal game, the 19-year-old, Oakville, Ontario native played a key role in Team Canada jumping out to a 2-0 lead over a talented Swedish squad. But in the final minute of regulation, with a tournament win within grasp, Sweden scored an equalizer that would send the game to sudden death OT.
"I was heartbroken," says Mason, selected 69th overall by Columbus in the 2006 Entry Draft. "We had the two-goal lead and to lose it with 30 seconds to go in the game was awful. It was the worst feeling in the world to know we possibly could have lost our shot at winning gold."
Fortunately, Matt Halischuk's goal 3:36 into overtime lifted the Canadians to victory, allowing Mason to breathe easy again.
"You go from so low to so high," he says, adding that it was special to share gold with childhood friend and fellow Columbus draft pick Stefan Legein. "It's indescribable winning something like that. It's the best feeling in the world. Only a select few guys get to experience that in their lives and to be one of those guys is something I'll never forget. It's the happiest I've ever been in my entire life.
"I still can't believe we ended up winning."
The brief period between Sweden's tying goal and the Canadian winner might be the only time Mason's been hurting in what's been one of the more chaotic months of his young life.
Mason had been enjoying a dominating season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Knights, posting a 19-4-1 record with two shutouts, a 2.79 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Mason then left for the Team Canada training camp, knowing the lineup would be a tough one to crack. He says he wanted to have no regrets about his play and after a great performance in camp, he was selected for the team, something he considers one of the greatest honors of his life.
"Growing up, I always watched the tournament," he says. "As I got into the junior ranks, I started thinking about the possibility of making that team. The opportunity to go to camp and travel with the team came to me. It was a dream come true.
"And to cap it all off, we won gold."
Prior to the semi-final with the Americans, Mason called home to see if the rumors of a possible trade out of London were true. His parents confirmed that he was indeed shipped to the Rangers, a team hosting the Memorial Cup, Canada's prestigious junior championship tournament.
"That made being traded a little easier to take," says Mason, adding that it will still be weird for him to play for Kitchener after going to battle against them a few times already this year.
The deal obviously had little impact on Mason, who was superb against what was considered a superior American team. After following that performance up with a win over the Swedes, he flew back to Canada ready to join the Rangers.
But the Steve Mason World Tour was far from finished.
"The next day, I was actually on my way to the mall with my girlfriend and I got a call that said, 'You have to be at the airport in two hours to catch a flight to St. Louis,'" he says. "I found out on short notice but I can't complain, I'm in the NHL."
Mason joined the Jackets for dinner in St. Louis and was greeted with what he calls "first class" treatment.
"As soon as he got here, I was quick to talk to him," says defenseman Kris Russell, a friend of Mason's throughout the last couple NHL training camps. "That was a team I was a part of the last two years and I definitely kept tabs.
"It's great to see a guy like that play as well as he did and earn a gold medal. He's a kid who has a good head on his shoulders. He knows what he wants. It's been a whirlwind for him for sure, I can't imagine."
The teenager has handled all of it with the same poise he shows when playing between the pipes. Head coach Ken Hitchcock had actually given thought to putting the kid in had either Pascal Leclaire or Fredrik Norrena been unavailable for back-to-back games against the Blues and Predators at Nationwide Arena this weekend.
Hitchcock likes what he sees in Mason, not only from a hockey perspective but also in terms of the person he is.
"He's such a positive guy and he's so respectful and mature," the coach said after Friday's practice. "The guy's a winner. He's won everywhere he goes, he makes a difference every place he plays. He's an exceptional goaltender with a great personality.
"It's hard not to get excited by a player like that let alone having a great attitude like he has."
Mason's impression dates all the way back to September's training camp when he showcased his array of skills.
"He's a big guy and for his size, he's very quick and agile," says goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk. "Those two assets don't always go together and it's nice when you get that, a guy who's got the size, the quickness and the mobility.
"Technically, he's got a great grasp on the game."
While the Jackets will eventually benefit from those talents in the long term, it's Kitchener who are most eager to see what heights their new netminder can help them reach.
"He's got his next three months planned," says Hitchcock. "He wants to be a good player right up until the Memorial Cup and then he wants to know what he has to do to be a good NHL player."
Crazy times, for sure, but with a new gold medal for the trophy case, his first NHL call up behind him and a bright future, all the chaos has been worth it for Mason.
"It's been a huge whirlwind," he says. "It's been a long month but at the same time, it's gone by really quickly. I've experienced a lot of things and had a lot of good things happen to me.
"I'm definitely fortunate for everything that's happened."