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Mason finally realizes his dream

by Larry Wigge

Nashville goaltender Chris Mason proved he was capable of handling starting duties for the Predators after filling in for an injured Tomas Vokoun last year
Not even a six-game losing streak in his first month as the Nashville Predators’ starting goaltender could shake the confidence of Chris Mason.

There was no “beware of what you wish for.” No trip to see a shrink. Mason’s sense of humor, quick wit, and patience were not even tested.

"It’s been five years since I was a No. 1 goalie," said Mason, looking back to the last two-plus seasons when he served as the backup to Tomas Vokoun in Nashville. "To be honest, after we won the first two games this season, I think we all got a false idea of who we were. We lost a lot of important players in the offseason and it took that losing streak for all of us to realize we weren’t that same team that won 51 games last season and scored a lot of goals. Once we re-learned our identity as a hard-working, disciplined team, things started to come back in place for us.”

The 31-year-old Mason is one of those classic feel-good stories. One minute he's the career backup goalie who had to struggle to even find a team he could play for at one point in his career. He was waived by Florida before finally making his way to the NHL for good. But once there, his main duty was to open and close the door at the end of the bench and slap Vokoun on the back when he came off the ice.

And then, everything changed.

For two very anxious days in late June, an uneasy Mason spent countless hours answering speculation back home in Red Deer, Alberta that the Predators were thinking about trading either he or Vokoun to lower the team’s payroll as owner Craig Leipold searched for a buyer of the franchise.

"It was crazy in a way, but it was also exciting and anxious. I admit I was a wreck waiting to see and wondering what might happen," Mason recalled after stopping 63 of 64 shots in leading the Predators to consecutive wins over Colorado and Dallas to start the 2007-08 season.

This isn’t the first time Mason has carried the load in goal for the Predators. He got an opportunity to start the final six games of the 2005-06 season and was the No. 1 for the Predators in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Vokoun was sidelined with a blood disorder. Then last season, he made 21-consecutive starts, from Nov. 25 through Jan. 6, going 14-6-1 and showing the stamina of a No. 1 netminder. In the process, Mason established career-highs in games (40), wins (24) and shutouts (five).

But clearly, this was still heady stuff for a player who was taken with the 122nd pick in the 1995 Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils.

It’s funny, but the bubbly, media-savvy Mason wasn’t available for comment about his good fortune on June 22, when General Manager David Poile officially announced the trade of Vokoun, plus a second-round draft choice, to the Florida Panthers for first- and second-round picks to help ease the payroll (Vokoun made $5.7 million vs. $1.25 million for Mason) for a team in search of a new ownership group.

That afternoon, Mason’s wife, Courtney, had planned for Chris and her to go to get photos of their 1-year-old daughter Avery ... and Courtney suggested strongly that Chris might turn off his cell phone so they could enjoy this family outing. On his way home, Chris turned the phone back on and it beeped and blinked like he had just won a jackpot in Las Vegas.

He quickly looked at his messages and saw one from his agent and one from his brother, among about eight calls he had received letting him know that Vokoun had been dealt.

"I called my dad to tell him about the news," said Mason, who laughed as he recalled his dad, Paul’s reaction which went along the lines of; "No way! No way! I can’t believe you’re the No. 1 goalie on an NHL team."

Chris said he wasn’t sure who was more excited, he or his dad.

"You dream of this all the time ... being the starting goaltender," Mason said. "You try not to think of everything all at once. But everything goes through your mind all at once anyway. You think; 'What if I screw up?' Then another voice in your head says; 'I can't screw up.' "

He listened to the latter voice.

"This kind of opportunity comes along once in a lifetime for a guy like me," he said. "I was so pumped I wanted the season to start right then.

"Physically, I knew I was ready for this after playing in 21-straight games last season. It was fun knowing that the coach was going to call my name the next game ... and the next. Mentally, that was a different story. I mean ... the pressure ... it made me feel anxious, a little, for a few days leading up to training camp. But then, the whole No. 1 thing hit me and I realized what an awesome challenge this was for me."

"We saw Chris Mason emerge as a No. 1 goaltender in 2006-07, and with full confidence in Chris, we felt as if we could make this move," said Poile, who rewarded Mason with a new two-year, $6 million contract this past summer.

The dollar difference was the key for the Preds, but ...

"To me, Mason was their No. 1 goalie last season," said St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray, after seeing Mason post a 6-1 record against the Blues, with a 2.09 goals-against average. "I thought he was better than Vokoun."

Predators coach Barry Trotz said Mason had earned his shot.

"His competitive level is definitely an A-plus," Trotz said. "He’s the kind of character guy that his teammates love to play in front of. And he’s one of those great stories of a player who was told he couldn’t do it at several points in his road to the NHL and yet he worked at his craft and learned how to find ways to win."

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