Steve Mason says he was ready to walk away from hockey. The game he'd loved since childhood had become a chore.
As the conclusion of the 2012-13 season approached, Mason was at a crossroads. Tossing his goalie pads in the trash seemed like the best, perhaps only, course of action.
"My mind was so beat up that I truly did not enjoy playing hockey anymore," Mason told NHL.com. "It had definitely crossed my mind to consider other options. I was just so beat up mentally that hockey was becoming more of a chore than a passion and something that was fun. … I hadn't thought about what I'd do, but it definitely crossed my mind to hang the pads up and focus on other aspects of life because hockey was something that was making life not enjoyable."
Goalie - PHI
GAA: 2.53 | SVP: 0.916
One year later, Mason's angst is a distant memory. His smile is omnipresent and the pads he was ready to trash have earned him his second 30-win season. He's virtually assured of making his second trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he has a three-year contract extension with the Philadelphia Flyers
that starts in July.
"It's been pretty much an entire year since I've been here," Mason said. "I've enjoyed every second of it. It's nice to be back having fun playing hockey, being part of an organization that has such a rich history and an organization you're proud to be part of. When you're having fun, time goes by even quicker."
Thursday, Mason will celebrate the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that traded Mason to Philadelphia, will be the opposition.
To fully appreciate where Mason is now, you have to understand where he was.
A third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2006, Mason made it to the NHL early in the 2008-09 season, after a three-game apprenticeship in the American Hockey League. A magical rookie run followed: 33 wins, a League-leading 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average that was second in the League. The Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history; Mason won the Calder Trophy and finished second in voting for the Vezina Trophy.
Everything may have gone right in 2008-09, but it all went wrong the next season when Mason finished with 13 fewer wins and a 3.06 GAA. The Blue Jackets sank to 14th in the Western Conference.
It was the start of a precipitous decline for Mason. He won more games than he lost once in four seasons after his rookie run, and the only season he had a GAA of less than 3.00 was his 13-game stint as a backup in 2012-13.
"When one thing goes wrong and another, it's a snowball effect where it gets to the point where you're trying so hard to recover you're spinning your tires and not going anywhere," he said. "It was an extremely difficult and humbling and depressing time all mixed into one long couple years there."
Mason was overwhelmed by the losing and fell into what he called "some dark places."
"Mentally, emotionally, it was really wearing on me," he said.
Mason consulted with a sports psychologist but said he found it difficult to share his emotions with a stranger. He realized the only thing that likely would help was leaving Columbus.
"Probably a year or two before the trade actually happened it was probably time for a change of scenery and a fresh start," he said.
Mason said he never asked for a trade. He knew he would reach restricted free agency after the 2012-13 season and doubted Columbus would give him the qualifying offer necessary to retain his rights.
With the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline approaching, Mason knew his time in Columbus was nearing an end. What was next, though, was a question.
He knew a few teams were showing interest but wouldn't put too much faith in anything happening. On April 3, the day of the trade deadline, Mason received the opportunity he craved via a phone call from his agent, Anton Thun.
"He had mentioned that the Flyers were one of a few teams interested in potentially making a trade," Mason said. "On trade-deadline day they had a deal in place and he just wanted to see if I was OK with it, and I was 100 percent ready for it. I was on a plane in a couple hours after the trade."
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren had been intrigued by Mason since watching him during Mason's draft year with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Holmgren, GM of the Flyers since 2006, had watched one goaltender after another slide in and out of his team's starting job and saw the pattern repeating itself at the end of the 2012-13 season. Ilya Bryzgalov, signed to a lucrative free-agent contract two years earlier, had worn out his welcome.
Holmgren and Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen agreed on a trade that would bring Mason to Philadelphia in exchange for goaltender Michael Leighton and a third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
"We'd always liked Steve," Holmgren told NHL.com. "He was a young guy that had success, and for whatever reason it slipped away from him."
Upon pulling on a Flyers jersey, Mason felt a better grip on his game, and his life.
"You have a new sense of excitement about being in a new organization, working with a new coach, new players on your team," he said. "As soon as the trade went through I had a thousand pounds lifted off my back and my brain. It's hard to explain the sense of relief."
Flyers forward Jakub Voracek, who had been a teammate of Mason's in Columbus, noticed the change immediately.
"Right away when he got traded you could see the fire in his eyes," Voracek said. "When I saw him the first time [with the Flyers], it was like he got released from prison. He was excited to play hockey."
The partnership with goaltending coach Jeff Reese also helped. Reese made changes to Mason's game, among them moving Mason deeper in the crease, especially off the rush, to better make use of Mason's 6-foot-4 frame. But more than technical adjustments, Reese helped ease Mason's mind.
"A lot of me feeling better was [Reese] expressing confidence from him and the coaching staff and the management here in me," Mason said. "That's not something I felt for a long time. For an organization of this magnitude to come in and say we believe in you after the couple years I had struggled said a lot to me personally."
So much so that Mason made a calculated gamble, signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract, representing a pay cut of nearly 50 percent, a week after his arrival.
Mason, 25, believed he could be a No. 1 goalie again, especially after receiving a preseason vote of confidence from then-coach Peter Laviolette.
"Being a No. 1 goalie in this League is not an easy task," Mason said. "Having the success in the first year I think was probably a bad thing because I thought it was going to come just like that and it didn't. Now that I'm almost 26 and I have all those years of experience, I know what it takes night in and night out and day in and day out to prepare myself and be ready for a 60-plus game workload to be a No. 1 goalie."
After starting the 2013-14 season splitting starts with Ray Emery, Mason has emerged as the clear No. 1. He has reached 30 wins for the first time since his rookie season, his .916 save percentage matches his figure from that rookie season, and his 2.53 GAA is the best he's had since his first season.
Mason was rewarded for his progress on Jan. 18 when he received a three-year contract extension.
Mason is quick to credit Reese for much of the improvement, but the goalie coach says the change is a function of different scenery.
"The biggest thing was for him to get out of Columbus," Reese said. "This guy always had the talent, he always had skill, he can move well for a big guy, very athletic, handles the puck, has a great glove hand. You knew there was something there. That's the biggest difference, him getting out of there and getting to a new place where people believed in him again."