The roots of Mason's success

Flyers goalie Steve Mason said he "always wanted to be a goalie. Wouldn't have had it any other way."
Flyers goalie Steve Mason said he "always wanted to be a goalie. Wouldn't have had it any other way." (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 19, 2014

TORONTO - Walking rapidly toward the entrance of the Air Canada Centre, fans wearing blue and white Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys - van Riemsdyk, Clarkson, and Phaneuf were among the players' names on their backs - curiously eyed an oddly dressed couple that strolled alongside them.

To Toronto fans, the couple looked strange because they were wearing orange, black, and white.

Flyers colors.

The colors of the enemy.

Finally, a man stopped the couple.

"What are you doing wearing those jerseys?" he asked before a recent game. "They're the wrong color."

"There were no blue ones left," replied the woman in a pleasant tone.

The woman and her husband each wore No. 35 Flyers jerseys with "Mason" stitched on their backs, showing their allegiance to their son, Steve, the 25-year-old goalie whose performance down the stretch will help determine whether his team is playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs next month.

Bill and Donna Mason live about 40 minutes outside of Toronto in Oakville, Ontario, in the house where they used to pepper their son with hard shots in their basement, in their garage, or on the pond behind their backyard.

It was there that Steve Mason, then 9 years old, discovered just how much he would rather stop a puck than shoot one.

"Always wanted to be a goalie. Wouldn't have had it any other way," said the easygoing, soft-spoken Mason, who was acquired from Columbus late last season. "When I was younger, I was fascinated by the position. You got to wear cool gear. You got a painted helmet. Those were the things that originally drew me to the position. I never had a favorite player when I was growing up; it was always a favorite goalie."

Mason is built like his dad, a strapping 6-foot-4 man. When you look at Bill Mason, you think you understand where his son picked up his hockey talent.

But it turns out Steve's love for hockey comes more from his petite mom, Donna.

"My mom will tell you I got my ability from her," Steve said.

While growing up in Montreal, Donna played highly competitive ringette hockey - a game played with a straight stick and a rubber ring - and was enamored with the sport that defines her country.

"I was a huge hockey fan," said Donna Mason, who, along with her 27-year-old daughter, Melanie, will be at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday and Thursday to watch the Flyers face Chicago and Dallas, respectively. "Every Saturday night, we'd be at my aunt's house, watching Hockey Night in Canada and listening to Danny Gallivan. I was a big Montreal Canadiens fan. I'd keep scrapbooks of the games on who scored. I was big on goalies back then, like Ken Dryden. I wasn't thrilled when my son wanted to be a goalie because I didn't like the pressure."

When Donna Mason watches her son on TV, "I'm at the back of the sofa when the game starts, but I keep inching up."

She smiled.

"It's like I'm helping him out, going back and forth" with her motions.

It seems to have worked. Mason has played solidly for most of the season, regaining his form after some scuffling years in Columbus.

Bill Mason, a commercial real estate salesman in the Toronto area, played many sports while growing up, but unlike most of his Canadian friends, hockey wasn't one of them. Doctors would not allow him to compete in any contact sports after he was nearly killed while walking across the street and struck by a car when he was 6 years old.

Returning home from school one day, Bill and another boy were at a crosswalk with a crossing guard. In an instant, Bill's life changed.

"I got into a bit of a tussle with the boy," Bill Mason said. "He ran across the street and I chased him. He made it and I didn't."

A car crashed into Bill. He broke his left leg, lost a kidney and his spleen, and spent six months in the hospital. Doctors said it would be too dangerous to play hockey or football.

Undeterred, Bill Mason, whose father played hockey in college and coached in youth leagues, took part in basketball, volleyball, baseball and swimming in high school. Years later, he coached Steve in baseball and soccer.

Steve also played hockey, and his dad would drive him to 6 a.m. practices. At first, the younger Mason played forward and defense. But in the back of his mind, he wanted to be a goaltender, wanted to emulate his idol, Martin Brodeur.

"I didn't start out as a goalie, but I probably wouldn't have it any other way," Mason said. "I think when I eventually have kids, if they get into hockey, I'll put them out in a forward or a defenseman position just so they can learn to skate. Skating is such an important part of the position. To go right into goaltending, I think you fall behind in your skating."

It may sound surprising, but Mason says a goalie's game "revolves around skating. In order for me to get from one position to another, it's not just a push. It's a technique that's involved and it all stems from skating."

When he was a youngster, Mason made his position switch after getting a paper route and delivering the Oakville Beaver, using the money to buy goalie equipment.

"Did it for probably nine years, and hated every day of it," Mason said. "I'd get paid really crappy money, but I wouldn't spend it on anything. I'd save up for a year and a half, two years, and I'd put every dime of that toward gear."

Mason played goal in local leagues and worked his way up the ranks. By the time he was 16, he was playing for the Grimsby Peach Kings in a Junior C league.

"He was 16 and playing against some guys 21," Bill Mason said. "I remember him saying, [incredulously] 'Dad, Some of these guys have beards!' "

Mason excelled at every level, played for the OHL London Knights when he was 17, and was selected by Columbus in the third round of the 2006 draft. At 20, he was the Blue Jackets' starter and was named the league's rookie of the year. But he struggled in the next three-plus seasons and lost his job to ex-Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky.

"His confidence wasn't there," said Donna Mason, who works in the finance department for a Ford dealership.

Mason's parents have attended some of their son's games in Toronto, Buffalo and Detroit. They have also traveled to games in Columbus and, on occasion, to Philadelphia. Bill and his friends went to Montreal to watch a game, and Bill joined the other Flyers fathers for a game in Washington this season.

After a game at the Wells Fargo Center this season, the players' dads went down to the ice for a photo.

"When you're down there at center ice and look up, you say, 'How can these guys function with 18,000 people looking at you?' " he said.

His son is a focused sort. Which explains why he said "no thanks" when his dad offered to pick him up and bring him back home the night before the Flyers played in Toronto earlier this month. Mason stayed at the hotel with his teammates. His parents understood and met with him after the game.

"Steven has his routine and we don't want to disrupt it," Bill Mason said.

Mason has a much better rapport with his teammates and goalie coach Jeff Reese than the player he replaced, Ilya Bryzgalov. Getting out of Columbus seems to have revived him.

"I don't know if the word is relieved," Bill Mason said, "but he needed a change of scenery."


More Than Numbers

Goalie Steve Mason is in the middle of the NHL pack in goals against average (2.57), but his value to the Flyers can better be measured by the manner in which he gave the team stability and confidence when it was struggling to get its offense untracked early in the season.

GREAT START

The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Mason was unquestionably the Flyers' MVP in the first half of the season. He kept them in games, always appeared in control, and he enabled the team to steady itself, learn coach Craig Berube's system, and blossom into a cohesive unit.

OLYMPIC FALLOFF

Mason has not been as sharp and has had some scrambling moments since the Olympic break ended, but he seems to have a knack for making big saves at crucial times.

RACKING UP WINS

Perhaps the best way to quantify Mason's value is this way: Despite not having a strong defense in front of him, Mason is sixth in the NHL in wins (28-16-6 record), and his .914 save percentage is virtually the same as that of Antti Niemi, who is tied for the league lead in victories (34) while playing for powerful San Jose, a team with a dominating group of blue liners.

- Sam Carchidi


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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