Steve Mason sat on the plane in Columbus, waiting to take off for Philadelphia, ready to get off the ground again. He remembers thinking to himself: “This is your second chance. Some people don’t get second chances. You better make the most of it.”
It was April 3. The Blue Jackets had traded him to the Flyers at the deadline. He had won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2008-09, but his career and confidence had crumbled so badly, he had thought his first chance might be his last. Quitting had crossed his mind. Now he was headed to a goalie graveyard, of all places, to find new life.
“I was thrilled,” he said.
The Flyers had booing fans, critical media and a long list of failed goalies. Was Mason really the answer for Philly? Was Philly really the answer for Mason? Only one way to find out. Mason quickly signed a one-year extension worth $1.5 million even though he was due a $3.2 million qualifying offer, not knowing if that offer would come, knowing what he had to prove.
“I was just looking forward to a fresh opportunity where I could hopefully start to build myself from the ground up,” Mason said. “From the first day I was in Philadelphia, I felt at home. I’ve been here for half a year now, roughly, and I feel like I’ve been here for six years.”
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Mason posted a 1.90 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in seven games with the Flyers last season. He has a 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage in 20 games this season. Since that flight from Columbus to Philadelphia, he has yet to allow more than three goals in a game.
Amid a lot of turmoil the last two months – a horrid start, a coaching change, a scoring drought – goaltending has suddenly become the least of the Flyers’ concerns.
Mason isn’t back to where he was when he won the Calder. He’s better.
“If there was an MVP of the team right now, it would be Mason,” said Flyers winger Jakub Voracek, who also played with Mason in Columbus. “He’s got great talent. He’s got a great work ethic. When he’s confident, he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league. I think he’s showing it night in and night out.”
* * * * *
Mason was 20 years old when he won the Calder. “That’s maybe the worst thing that could have happened to him,” said Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese, “because then he thought maybe everything was going to be easy, and when things started going downhill for him, he had nothing to fall back on.”
In retrospect, 2008-09 wasn’t exactly a fluke, but it wasn’t supposed to happen, either. Mason was a third-round pick in 2006, 69th overall. He had two knee surgeries in 2008. He played only three games in the American Hockey League, then came up to fill in for an injured Pascal Leclaire. He got hot. He went 33-20-7 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .916 save percentage as the Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the first time since joining the NHL in 2000.
“Everything went right,” Mason said.
And then everything went wrong.
Maybe somewhere else, it would have been different. Consider that Jimmy Howard was the runner-up for the Calder the year after Mason won it. Howard was a late second-round pick, 64th overall, not much different than Mason was. But that was in 2003, and that was with the Detroit Red Wings. He was 25 years old most of his rookie year and turned 26 that March. He had four years of AHL apprenticeship, and he had veteran backup Chris Osgood as his mentor and a perennial contender in front of him.
Mason was only 21, 22, 23 and 24 when he struggled the four years after winning the Calder, his goals-against average ballooning as big as 3.39, his save percentage dipping as low as .894. He had virtually no AHL apprenticeship. He had no veteran backup as his mentor. He had a poor team in front of him, too.
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“Realistically, even though I won the Calder, I probably should have gone back down to the American League and grown up down there,” Mason said. “Being a starting goaltender in the NHL is a lot of responsibility. The growing pains that most goalies go through in the American League, the media spotlight isn’t there. When things start going south and people are constantly bringing it up, it wears on you. Had that all happened in the American League, it might have been a smoother transition.”
Mason said he “lost all confidence” in his game and fell into “almost like a depressed state” listening to criticism. He wondered if he had a future in hockey – whether people had given up on him, whether he should give up on himself. Asked if he seriously thought about quitting, he said: “I knew my contract was coming up, and it was something that potentially crossed my mind.”
“It wasn’t something that I was enjoying doing anymore,” Mason said. “It was just such a constant negative feeling, I guess. It was really, really stressing me out more than anything.”
Somewhere out there, though, someone believed in Mason. Reese had played junior for the London Knights, like Mason had. He had been working for the Tampa Bay Lightning when Mason was eligible for the draft, and he had seen then that Mason was big, athletic and full of potential. He shared the same agent, Anton Thun, and followed Mason’s career. Asked if he pushed the Flyers to acquire Mason, he said only that when general manager Paul Holmgren made the trade, he was pleased.
“Let’s leave it at that,” Reese said.
* * * * *
When Mason struggled, he would come out too far, go down too early, take himself out of the play too often. Teams would crash the net and feast on second chances. He looked small and shaky.
Reese had him set up deeper in the net. Mason can do that because he’s 6-foot-4 with long arms and legs, and that allows him to be more compact and economical in his movement – to beat the pass, be in position for the initial shot and stay square for rebounds. He looks bigger and calmer now.
“We simplified his game a lot,” Reese said. “We want to use his size to his advantage and just make him more efficient, make the game easier for him.”
Mason saw immediate results, and that helped restore his confidence. He felt good going into the summer, and he was eager to come back to training camp and play for the first time since … well, maybe since he was coming off the Calder.
But it has been more than that.
He came back feeling his coaches and teammates believed in him. He came back with a new mentor, Ray Emery, who had just backed up Corey Crawford as the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. And though he was not yet old, still only 25, he came back older.
“He’s done a lot of growing up,” Reese said. “He’s a professional now. He’s a pro.”
Experience had taught him how to take care of his body, how to get ready for games, how to handle fans and media, how stay patient with shooters and himself.
“I’ve played a lot of games in the league already,” Mason said. “Even though a lot of those were negative times, you do pick up things. My game right now is so much better than it was my rookie season. I’m a better goaltender. I’m 1,000 times more prepared for the role of being a goalie in the NHL.
“My last couple years in Columbus, my goaltending coach was Ian Clark. He said, ‘All these tough times are going to make you better in the long run.’ He was like, ‘I know you don’t see it right now, but eventually you’ll realize what I’m saying.’ I didn’t believe it at the time. But right now, I can see what he was talking about.”
The hard times don’t depress him anymore. They motivate him.
“When you hit rock bottom and work your way back up, it makes you appreciate what you have,” Mason said. “I’ve gone through so much to get to here and worked so hard to get to this point. You don’t want to waste your second chance.”
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