-- The first thing Steve Mason
would do whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs
released their schedule each season was to circle the dates on the arrival of his boyhood idol -- Devils goalie Martin Brodeur
"I was 10-years-old at the time and the only reason I went to Maple Leaf Gardens was to watch Marty play," Mason said. "In fact, the only time I went to watch the Leafs' play was when Jersey was in town. One time I remember he didn't even play, he was on the bench. Boy was that disappointing.
"Marty is never on the bench."
It seems hard to fathom that 11 years later, Mason, now in his second season for the Columbus Blue Jackets
, will oppose the man he looked up to as a youngster. Mason, who missed out on facing Brodeur last season when the record-breaking keeper was sidelined 50 games with an elbow injury and subsequent surgery, will get that opportunity Tuesday when the Devils play the Blue Jackets at Prudential Center.
In their only meeting last season, Mason started opposite Kevin Weekes
and made 26 saves in a 2-1 loss in Columbus.
"He's just a winner, plain and simple," Mason said of Brodeur. "He's won everything. And when you watch him during stoppages of play, he's always having a good time out there. There's always a big smile on his face. He just handles the pressure extremely well and obviously he's one of the best for a reason. All those Stanley Cups and international gold medals -- you name it, he's got it."
But in addition to maintaining his composure, Mason also knows there's a hockey game to be played and helping his team to victory is the first priority.
"We're playing a great hockey team and not just a great goaltender," he said. "It'll be a good test for us from that aspect, but once the summer comes along, it'll be cool to look back on this game and say I was able to get into the League and play against the guy I looked up to."
He's also the guy who possesses a goalie stick signed by Brodeur.
"At the end of orientation camp (for Team Canada) back in August, we were both there," Mason said. "I didn't want to approach him right off the bat to be that annoying young guy, but after the camp was over, I approached him and he had no problem giving away one of his sticks and personalizing it for me. That was pretty nice."
Brodeur laughed when recalling that moment with Mason.
"It was no big deal," Brodeur said. "Hey, I asked Patrick Roy
and (Wayne) Gretzky for things; it's just some of the nature. When you play with guys and never met them before, it's nice to get something off of them, especially from the people you look up to. I heard a lot about Steve last year when we played them, but I was still hurt. Hopefully, he doesn't play too good (Tuesday). I know asking Patrick (Roy) for something worked to my advantage when I first faced him. Hopefully, it doesn't backfire on me."
Columbus coach Claude Noel
knows playing against Brodeur is something that Mason will never forget.
"I'll let him deal with those emotions between his ears," Noel said. "Steve is a competitor and I think it's a good thing when you're able to play against a guy you idolized and grew up wanting to be like. You have to deal with nerves and that's all part of experience. When you look across the ice and have to pinch yourself and say, 'Is this a dream or what?', that's good. I don't think he's alone out there though. A lot of our players will be like that."
Mason (17-22-8, 3.12 goals-against average, .898 save percentage, 4 shutouts) will have to be especially sharp. While he certainly hasn't reached the level he performed as a rookie in 2008-09 when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year, Mason is determined to get back to that form and close out the season on a positive note.
"It's been an up-and-down year, but it's been better of late so we just have to keep focusing on that," Mason said. "Our goal is to finish out the year strong. You want to play well no matter what the situation and the guys have been playing really well lately."
"He was really good his first year, winning the Calder, but this year has been a little tougher since, as a team, things haven't been as rosy," Brodeur said. "But I like his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and how competitive he is. He's a big man who's athletic and that's nice to see. You kind of look at goalies and they look all the same, but he has his own style and plays his own way and is spectacular to watch."
Columbus captain Rick Nash
knows there is pressure on Mason to be the team's best player on most nights.
"He's the same goalie he was last season," Nash said. "He understands now how hard it is to win in this League. He had early success and was the main reason we made the playoffs (for the first time in franchise history) last year. He's had tremendous stretches and great games, but for us to be a good team, he's got to be our best player."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com