Gilles Gilbert, Fred Brathwaite, Jeff Reese, Peter Ing, Pat Riggin, and – most recently – Adam Dennis (BUF). The list of quality goaltenders whose route to the NHL has taken them through London, Ontario is notable in its length and quality. But it’s safe to say that few have had as bumpy a ride as current London Knights starter – and Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick – Steve Mason.
Although Mason’s currently enjoying the lion’s share of the netminding duties for the Knights, it’s a role that he earned by enduring a year of frustration, turmoil, and hard work – although most of that occurred away from the glare of the lights at the John Labatt Centre in the less-spectacular confines of the Knights’ practice facility.
Mason served as the backup for Dennis last season. It was a season that saw Dennis play in 57 games – including an unfathomable 45-straight contests, en route to breaking the OHL’s record for single-season victories with 44. In fact, last season started off particularly auspiciously for Mason last year as he was shellacked in the early going as Dennis and a trio of other key players remained at NHL training camps. In the end, while the wins came, Mason saw action in just 12 games, compiling a 5-3 record with a 2.66 GAA and .931 save percentage.
Oh, what a difference a year makes. This year, Mason has suited up for 29 games already and while his GAA has increased to 3.18 playing behind the run-and-gun Knights with their suspect defense, his .918 save percentage and the general accolades that he’s received from observers throughout the league seem to indicate that he’s the real deal. And an invite to the Canadian World Junior Hockey Championship squad selection camp cements his status amongst the elite at his position.
Talent hasn’t been an issue, nor has size at 6’3, but opportunity has been lacking. That’s not the case this year and you’ll have to forgive Mason for not shedding any tears for the plight of current Knights’ backup goalie Stéphane César. A role reversal has seen Mason come to the fore after patiently waiting in the wings – and now that his time has finally come, he’s planning on making up for lost time.
“It was definitely tough last year. You expect to play a little bit more than you’re given and that’s part of the process,” Mason said. “[César]’s going down to Petrollia [the Knights Junior B affiliate] and getting his playing time there and if he keeps working hard he’s going to get his shot.
“But in the meantime I have no problem with all my playing time. I know how tough it was and I’ve paid my dues so I guess you could say it’s his turn!”
The Knights entered this season confident that Mason could perform – the question was would he? The limited action he saw last year offered the Knights glimpses of his potential, but it was his continued effort that earned him the full confidence of the coaching staff.
“It’s great for Steve. He paid his dues last year and worked hard. He took advantage of the opportunities when he had them, both in the regular season and the playoffs,” Dave Rook, the Knights’ goaltending coach, explained. “He worked hard all summer and came in and did the job – he proved to us that he can play game in and game out.
“Steve’s a very mature kid. He knows that sitting on the bench that he could go in and do the job. The biggest thing for Steve was could he come in and do it back to back. He’s just worked hard, he’s got the great make-up for the game. He doesn’t get too high and he doesn’t get too low, and I think that’s one of the reason how he can maintain the consistency he’s shown.”
And scouts like what they see out of the young netminder. “You see him in the warm-ups and he’s got a good, lanky build. He’s quick and he’s fluid,” one scout explained. “Clearly he looks like a goalie, he’s got some athleticism, and he competes hard. He’s got some potential there.”
In fact, there was enough potential that the Blue Jackets were willing to take a chance on the Oakville, Ontario native in the third round of the 2006 Entry Draft. And while fans weren’t able to see that potential during games last year, scouts liked what they saw in practices.
“A couple of times during the year [Columbus’] old goalie coach Rick Wamsley, who is now with St. Louis, had come out and talked to me and expressed their interest in me,” Mason explained. “They actually came up to me a couple of days before the draft and said that something was going to happen, and I had heard from a couple of other teams that they were interested and they were going to select me, so that was definitely a good feeling going into draft day knowing that I was going to get selected.”
It was a great ending to a trying year for the netminder – one that saw him start to question his abilities from time to time. “It was a character-builder. You learn to never give up and that was a big thing for me,” Mason added. “There are times during the season when you start to question yourself, wondering if this is the best situation for me, but I persevered and I think that plays into my success this year.”
And the hardest part? Watching the club succeed without him between the pipes.
“It was hard just wanting to be more a part of the team and its success. It was such a successful season and when you’re practicing all the time it gets tough,” he said. “You’re wondering when you’re going to get your shot and how you’re going to do, so you start questioning yourself. Watching the team have success and not really being a part of it.
“You do your part in practice and help the team get ready and give the team support, but you’re not actually on the ice helping the team win.”
Mason credits his goaltending coach, Rook, for getting him through the tough times and keeping him focused on what was important.
“He’s the biggest factor in my development. Last year I improved so much and it was really only due to the work he put in with me,” Mason said. “We’d be out every day an hour before practice working on just specific goalie drills, and on game day the guys would be at home having their pre-game nap and I’d be on the ice with him.
“He was definitely a huge factor in my development last year and I owe the draft and all the recognition I have to him.”
Naturally, Rook prefers to minimize his role and maximize Mason’s contribution to the cause.
“Steve’s a great student. So I can give the information to him that I give to a lot of goalies and it’s up to him to process it and buy into it,” Rook explained. “Steve and I, I think we have a great rapport. There’s a lot of trust between Steve and I and he knows that I’m there for him whether he plays well or not. But all of this keeps going back to Steve because he’s the one who has bought into it and he’s the one that keeps working hard.
“He comes to me to ask to watch tape and he comes to me to ask if we can go on the ice, so I like to think that I’m giving him the right information to play well, but at the end of the day it’s up to him to process it and buy into it.”
Now that things are looking up for the young netminder, Rook doesn’t see that much of a change in his role.
“Steve’s got a lot of confidence. Things seem to be happening pretty quickly for him: the draft, then doing very well at Columbus’ camp, and now this [World Junior invite]. But it’s just a process,” he said. “He’s playing well and everything he’s received he’s worked hard for. He’s doing well and it’s my job to ensure that he stays on an even keel too, and make sure he stays grounded.”
Mason spent part of the summer showcasing his wares for his pro club, and it was an eye-opening experience for the young netminder.
“It was definitely a good experience. I went down for their prospect camp, the prospect tournament, and finally the main camp. At every tournament that I was at I learned a lot. And definitely at the main camp, when I saw all those pro players, it was definitely a pretty cool feeling,” he said. “It’s almost like you’ve made it, but you haven’t, because you’re practicing with the likes of Rick Nash and Pascal Leclaire and you’re working out with them after. You see how hard they work and you see what it takes to get to the next level.”
Just the fact that real-life NHLers were taking shots at him was a surreal experience, Mason explained.
“It was kind of cool. You’re sitting at home some nights watching them on TV and then the next night you’re on the same ice surface as them,” Mason explained. “But there’s nothing really different about them – it’s just that if you give them a little space they’re going to take it, so you have to be that much better at the next level.”
That camp experience, along with the fact of hearing his name called at the NHL draft, crystallized the realization that reaching the NHL is more than just a dream – it’s a potential reality.
“Anytime you’re drafted you kind of get that feeling that if I work hard and keep at the pace that I am, then I could potentially get there,” he said. “But right now it’s in the future. Right now I’m here in London and I’m enjoying my success here and having fun with it. If, in a couple of years, I find myself playing in Columbus it’s going to be because of the hard work that I put in here in London.”
From obscure backup to a chance for a starring role on one of Canadian hockey’s greatest stages, it’s been a wild ride for Mason en route to getting an invite to Team Canada’s junior team selection camp. It’s one he’s trying to keep in perspective – which may be doubly important in light of the fact that his participation has been limited due to concussion-like symptoms that he’s been experiencing since Sunday, Dec. 10th.
“[The other invited goaltenders] do have pretty big names and they’re doing pretty well for themselves in their junior career and I give all the credit in the world to them, but it’s my job to go into camp and play the way I have been playing,” he said. “And if I get selected, I get selected, but if not then I come back to a good junior club here in London.”
Even without a selection, Rook explained that there’s a lot of positives that can be taken from this experience. “It’s a good measuring stick for Steve to see where he is,” he said. “Obviously, he’s one of the top four goaltenders in Canada and he shouldn’t take a back seat to anyone.
“He’s the only one who wasn’t a first-round selection, but that’s because he didn’t play that much. Had he played as much last year as he did this year, he would have been a first-rounder.”
When Mason does return to London, whether it’s before or after the holidays, he’ll be coming back to a junior club that’s done a stellar job in developing goaltenders over the past few years. Mason was preceded by Dennis. Prior to that Ryan MacDonald and Gerald Coleman (TB) split time between the pipes in The Forest City. And the constant presence? Rook.
“Rooker’s the key. He’s the goaltender guy,” Team President and Head Coach Dale Hunter explained. “All I worry about is ‘if they stop them,’ he worries about ‘how.’ He’s worried about technique and everything.
“He does an excellent job with them and he’s patient with them and he understands them. It’s a tough position – it’s like pitching. You’re either on or you’re off. He’s patient with them, but at times he knows when to be stern.”
Not many junior clubs dedicate the resources to hiring a dedicated goaltending coach, but the Knights – led by owners and senior managers Dale and Mark Hunter – believe that the specialization of the game mandates the establishment of this position.
“It’s a big part of the game now. It’s like pitching in baseball or quarterbacking in football. If he’s not on, you’re going to have a hard time to win,” Dale Hunter explained. “The goalies know it and that’s why there’s the pressure on them. That’s why we try to do as much as we can to help these kids.”
Rook’s so involved and respected by the Hunters that he has a significant voice in which player gets selected. “The scouts go out and identify those kids that they think are going to be good and Dave will go out and watch the kids before we draft them to see who he likes,” Hunter added. “It’s kind of the scouts plus Rooker. His recommendation carries a lot of weight but the scouts are out there every day and they identify them.”
Rook, again, chooses to deflect any suggestion that he plays such a key role. “Obviously it’s drafting. The scouts do a great job picking the kids and they get out a lot more than I do to see them,” he said. “It’s the whole organization, from the whole scouting staff to Mark and Dale having the confidence to play them.”
The recipe for Knights’ success between the pipes isn’t exactly a company secret. The problem is finding someone who has the internal make-up to match up with the physicality.
“We look for size. But the game’s so lateral that we need guys that can move side to side,” Rook said. “Playing the puck too. We’ve always been fortunate through Ryan MacDonald, Colsie, Adam, and now Mase is able to play the puck as well. And mental, unfortunately you can’t tell that – we were fortunate with Steve to see after we drafted him how mentally tough he is.
“That’s one of the things you realize after the fact.”
And there’s one lesson that Rook wants to leave his charges with – one that applies both on and off the ice.
“I think it’s the ability to either not get too high or too low and to battle,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, as long as you compete and work hard you’re going to be successful.
“No matter where it is in life, as long as you work hard you’ll be successful.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.