It may come as a surprise but there are a few things that Steve Mason doesn't actually excel at. Like playing poker. So when Mason visits Las Vegas later this week to go to the NHL Awards, where the budding star is nominated for both the Calder and Vezina trophies, he'll have to be extra careful with his free time.
"I try," Mason says of his card-playing abilities. "I'm not very good at it."
For those who do have extensive experience with wagering, many say the smart money is on Mason to return from Vegas with the Calder in his arms. The 21-year-old, Oakville, Ontario native accomplished far more than was expected of him when he took over the Columbus net back in November. Ken Hitchcock's roll of the dice paid off handsomely as Mason went on to win 33 games in his 61 appearances, registering a 2.29 goals against average, a .916 save percentage and an NHL-best 10 shutouts.
The voters would be hard-pressed to find a rookie that contributed more to their team. And the fact that Mason is up for top goalie along with Boston's Tim Thomas and Minnesota's Nicklas Backstrom shows just how influential the Blue Jacket netminder was in his first NHL season.
"It was definitely a great first campaign for me," Mason says. "With the two nominations, that was icing on the cake. Hopefully, I come home from Vegas with at least one award.
"Being nominated for the rookie of the year, you only have one year to do that so I'm definitely proud of that. And with the Vezina, you look around the league and the goalies that are playing, to be nominated in the top three for the past season, that's something to be proud of."
Mason will have plenty of family supporting him in Vegas this week. He's bringing his own Canadian entourage, including his mother, aunt, grandmother, sister and girlfriend. His dad will be unable to make it because of a blood clot in his leg that is preventing him from traveling.
"It'll be disappointing my dad's not there but at the same time, the trip will be exciting," Mason says.
While the NHL just wrapped up an incredible postseason, Mason has been back to work for almost a month now. The NHL Awards will actually provide a break to his off-season regimen, which has included a lot of working out back in Ontario, where he's been splitting time between Oakville and the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
Mason needed to recharge for a few weeks after the Jackets' season came to a close but it didn't take long for him to get the urge to train.
"I took it easy for a little while, but now summer's pretty much over for the relaxing part," he says. "I'm back working out. I've been on the ice once. I'm craving to get back to Columbus and start the season. We've had a lot of time off already and mentally, I'm ready to get going again.
"It was a heckuva year, not just for myself personally but for the entire team," he adds. "We had a lot to be proud of. I think I can speak for everybody when I say that we want to get even better. We made the playoffs, that was a good step but we want to go deep in the playoffs now."
Mason isn't the type of kid who pats himself on the back but he's smart enough to know that his introduction into the league was a special one. So too was the bond he and his Jackets teammates formed, resulting in the best season in franchise history. Though there were some lows, Mason has vivid memories of the highs. Among them were his first NHL win in his debut against the Edmonton Oilers last November, an OT win over the mighty San Jose Sharks on Nationwide ice, an improbable road shutout over the Washington Capitals with a depleted Columbus lineup and of course, a shootout victory in Chicago that clinched the first ever playoff berth for the Jackets.
Even after Columbus was eliminated, Mason watched the post season with interest.
"For the first part of the playoffs, it was kind of hard to watch because of the disappointment of being swept in the first round," he says. "But I think the entire team is better for it.
"You look at what the players were going through and what it takes. The best experience is just to go through it personally. Next year, we're hoping to go on a longer run."
Mason can look at his own experiences as a reference point. The NHL playoffs are about persevering and taking full advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Mason has done just that in recent years. Any time he's been given a chance, be it with the London Knights of the OHL, the Canadian junior team at the World Junior Championships or in his rookie year with the Jackets, Mason has seized it. He's already known for having the courage and the ability to take hold of the reins wherever he goes.
"Any time you're given an opportunity to make a dream come true, you want to make the most of it," he says. "When I've been given an opportunity, I've told myself that I want to put the best effort forward and make the most of it."
That drive has earned Mason a trip to Vegas this week to be a part of the NHL's glitziest night of the year. And he may very well clean up.