Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Franchise Stevie

Actually, as cool as Steve Yzerman is, he isn't the Steve I'm referring to.

This is.

Although, someday I hope I get to post a photo of this kid raising the Cup above his head like Yzerman... well, I guess this cup kind of cool too, but I mean THE cup...

Okay, I love this kid.

This is Steve Mason, of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who might just be my favourite goalie in the National Hockey League (sorry Flower...).

Honestly. I'm SAD... I think I'm actually developing a crush on him. (Make whatever puck bunny comments you like, I really don't care because he's just so awesome that it makes ANY and ALL ridicule entirely bearable.) He's such a class act.

(Did I mention he's also a TOTAL cutie? Gratuitous eye candy... I know. Check out that tattoo, the writing along the bottom is his nickname, Mase, which is also on the chin of all of his masks.)

A few vital stats: born May 29th, 1988, 6'4", 212 lbs, shoots right. OHL Goalie of the Year in 2007. (That's the Ontario Hockey League for those of you not quite as obsessed with junior hockey as I am.) Currently the starting goalie for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, for a little bit of history...

Mason only started twelve games his first OHL season. That June, he went third round (69th OA) to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2006 Entry Draft. Then, the following season (2006-2007) he blew everyone away when he earned the starting spot with the London Knights and went on to set the OHL record for regular season wins (45) and the CHL record for assists by a goalie (8), playing 62 games with the Knights and finishing the season with a 3.20 GAA (not STELLAR, but he did have a 0.914 SV% - that's 2123 saves in 3733 minutes of play, folks). Next time I criticize a goalie I'm going to try to imagine stopping even 199 of the 2322 pucks that came flying at him that season...

Mason started the 2007-2008 season in Columbus but was a healthy scratch for a couple games before begin sent back to the OHL.

That fall, he was selected to play on the U20 National team where he made saves like these...

And helped Team Canada win gold.


In doing so, he earned himself both the Top Goaltender and Tournament MVP titles.

Winning gold = dogpile on the goalie who made clutch saves in overtime until Matty Halischuck scored the game winner...

Incidentally, it was this tournament that put him on my (and most of Canada's) radar. I remember watching the first couple games and just thinking 'Wow, where the heck did this kid come from?' (From Oakville, apparently...)

I wasn't alone in my "Where did this kid come from?"-ness. During the 2008 World Junior Hockey Championships (hereafter the WJC) Allen Panzeri wrote the following for the Ottawa Citizen:
"Only three years ago, when he was 16, Steve Mason was with the Grimsby Jr. C Peach Kings of the Niagara Junior C [my emphasis, I'll explain below] Hockey League in Ontario, treading water as a hockey player and not sure he was going anywhere.

The year before, he wasn't picked by the London Knights until the 11th round of the Ontario Hockey League draft (201st overall). So he didn't know he was even going to make it there, either.

This afternoon [January 2nd, 2008], Mason, 19, will lead Team Canada into the medal round of the world junior hockey championship, against Finland (2-2) in the first quarter-final game.

It doesn't get any more Canadian than that. Before you know it, he'll be in a Tim Hortons commercial. Now all he has to do is that other Canadian thing: win.

"I think about that all the time," Mason said of his days with Grimsby. "It kind of humbles you. You can't get too full of yourself.

"It's kind of funny. I was kind of a nobody back then, always the underdog. And I kind of used that underdog thing as a little motivation.

"Coming into (Team Canada) camp, I was probably the lowest kid drafted (by the Columbus Blue Jackets, 67th overall), so I don't think many people picked me to come out on top."

Two days after this article was published, on January 4th, 2008, only hours before the semi-final game against the United States, Mason was traded to the Kitchener Rangers, who wanted him for their Memorial Cup run. He's that good.

For a kid who'd been playing in the fourth tier junior league only three years earlier -because, in Canada, Junior C is below Major Junior (the CHL), Junior A (BCHL / OPJHL et c.), and Junior B- it's a heck of a step up. Then Mason was called up to Columbus (again) in February. He never played, but the fact that he'd been called up to the NHL twice was significant in and of itself. From Junior C to the NHL in only 3 years... now that is something.

The Kitchener Rangers went on to win the OHL title, and made it to the Memorial Cup final, but without Mason, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on April 18th (2008) after wrecking his knee in March and playing through it for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the OHL playoffs. Incidentally, the Rangers lost in the Memorial Cup final to the Spokane Chiefs, whose netminder, Dustin Tokarski, was Canada's starting goalie at this year's WJC.

Mason underwent further surgery for his knee in September 2008 and missed the first month of his first professional season with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch. Following his recovery, he played only three games with the Crunch before being called up to start for the Blue Jackets when their starting goalie, Pascal Leclaire injured his ankle.

On November 5th, 2008 he played (and started) his first NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers. Columbus won 5-4. (Mason got the game puck :P)

Within the week, he was on his way to becoming a local hero.

Seventeen days later, he played his first NHL shutout against the Atlanta Thrashers.

His record through November and December 2008? 12-7-1.

It earned him the NHL's Rookie of the Month title for November. And then again for December. It also earned him the following, on the Columbus website:

Thanks to Mason, the Columbus Blue Jackets actually have a serious a shot at the playoffs! If they make it this season, Mason will be in large part responsible for their FIRST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE EVER!!!

This is only funny to me because of this:

Offside --> After I saw that clip, I couldn't wait for Stefan Legein to make the jump to the NHL. Can you imagine the marketing opportunities a guy like him would provide? Mix Crosby's good looks (only Legein's WAY cuter), Max Talbot's charisma, and Colby Armstrong's sense of humour. He's an NHL triple threat.

(I adore Legein; I couldn't help myself from going as far as naming one my characters after him: any and all similarities between Stefan Legein and Stephane Leduc are completely and TOTALLY intentional.)

Steve Mason, Stefan Legein and Karl Alzner: three of my four favourite members of the 2008 U20 Team (Brad Marchand being the fourth) - it probably shouldn't surprise me that they have the good taste to be friends...

So, you can understand why my heart broke when Legein (who went 37th OA to Columbus in the 2007 draft) decided not to show up to the Blue Jackets' camp last year and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing pro hockey. I actually came close to tears because, after the 2008 WJC, I was actually prepared to start cheering for Columbus solely because of him and Mason.

At least I get to cheer for Mason. And, admittedly, I have a lot to cheer about...

Steve Mason's record since his NHL debut (as of January 27th, 2009): 17-11-2.

Mason currently has the best GAA in the league (2.05) and the 5th best Sv% (0.926). Six of his seventeen wins have been shutouts. And Columbus is only 2 points out of a playoff spot right now (49 points & #10 in the West)- it's worth noting that there is only a four point difference in the western conference between the #6 team (Edmonton) @ 51 points, and the #12 team (Colorado) @ 47. Unlike the east, it's actually going to be a race for playoff spots in the west.

**LATE EDIT: After the game tonight vs. Detroit, Columbus is now #5 - that's how close it is...

Since the Sens are CLEARLY not going to make playoffs (if they make it, I will... I don't know, dare me to do something ridiculous... and I'll do it if the Sens make playoffs), and since the Pens are probably going to choke in the first round as is post-Cup-appearance tradition, I'm considering bandwagonning it this post-season.

I live in Vancouver and the Canucks aren't completely sucking this year but, to be honest, I have trouble cheering for them.

I could cheer for the Habs, except that I've got this stupid addiction to cheering for the underdogs and Montreal so isn't an underdog team this year.

So I think I'm going to root for Columbus.

Mason is #1!

Because how can you not love this kid?

Left: Mason and one of his physical trainers.

Right: Mason and his mom. (That's your cue, say it with me: Awwwe!)

Hey now! You're an All-Star! (okay, a Young-Star)
Get your game on, go play!
... and all that glitters is gold, only shooting stars break the mold...

Because he's a goalie, Mason is a "dark horse" (SNORT) for the Calder Trophy this season. Um, right cause Stamkos and Doughty are leading the lea- BAHAHAHA, I can't even finish that sentence! (Don't get me wrong, Stamkos and Doughty are good, but not my pick for rookie of the year...)


Sorry Dany, you're going to have to score me a couple dozen more goals this season to keep top-place in my hockey heart... (Hit 40 goals or 80 points and we can talk babe.)


ali said...

Between finding out that ice has my first two morning classes cancelled and reading this post -- wow... my not so good day ended pretty darn well...

Loved this post... It actually makes me want to cheer for Columbus (I really don't follow the West to much -- so my playoff allegiance there is definately up for grabs)... and since they're the closest NHL team to my current locale, I think I might just have to journey on up to Columbus and watch them some weekend...

lauren said...

You're cheering against my team! :( But part of my has to root for Columbus, at least for them to make the playoffs. I'd be okay with Detroit going up against them in the post-season, we could almost definitely take them out but we're going to have problems with the Ducks or Sharks.

I do like Mason, and now that Brassard is out for the season I think Mason is my top choice for the Calder.

And it just occurred to me that I may have seen Mason play while going to OHL games in my hometown. And I feel really dumb for not being able to remember.

mer said...

@ ali - the western conference is actually hella different from the east; i'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think it has to do with it being populated with early expansion teams (seriously: Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Kings, Blues, (North)Stars, Jets->Coyotes - all came into being before 1980). Since moving to Van, I've tried to follow it more - it's odd what you just KNOW about teams in your division/conference, even teams you don't really follow... I didn't realize how much I knew about the Flyers until I realized how LITTLE I knew about pretty much every team in the Western Conference aside from Calgary, Edmonton(Gretzky era) Chicago and Detroit.

@ lauren - Kyle Turris played for the Burnaby Express for the first two years I lived in Vancouver. Their home rink is 6 minutes from my house. I never saw him play. Not once.

Milan Lucic played for the Giants for the first two years I was here, did I ever see him play? No. Now who's the dumbass? (hint: not you)

This can be blamed on the guy I was dating at the time, who hated hockey (I KNOW, I LEARNED MY LESSON). I can also blame him for the fact that I never got to see Karl Alzner play for the Hitmen, despite spending over 40 days in Calgary during the 2006-2007 season.

He actually refused to take me to a Flames game. Fine, NHL is pricey. But when he refused to go to a Hitmen game, that should have been a sign from the hockey gods.

Also, I'm not cheering Against the Wings, I'm just cheering For Mason :P

Clare said...

I followed the London Knights two seasons ago and I knew how good Steve Mason was. I went to see a Columbus pre-season game in Buffalo last season and was so excited to see him on the roster, and then disappointed to see that he got scratched. Even though he plays for Columbus, I agree with lauren a part of me has to root for them even just for he and Nikita Filatov.

Versteeg was my early choice for the Calder but I have now changed my mind and definitely think it should go to Mason.

@ mer- Am I wrong or hasn't Stefan Legein returned and is now playing for the Syracuse Crunch?

@lauren The Blackhawks will take the Ducks, I think (hope) we could get by them, we have problems in our division so you guys can take Columbus.

ali said...

@mer -- Yeah... I know... I have NHL GameCentre online so once and awhile I try and watch a Western Conference game or two, just so that my hockey "life" can stay balanced. It also helps that the only other "real" hockey fan I've met here is a HUGE San Jose fan -- so I try to find out some things so our conversations make sense...

My friends always ask me what I'm going to do if I start dating a guy who doesn't like hockey... uh oh. Sounds like it could potentially be a problem...

mer said...

@ ali - A guy who doesn't *care* for hockey is one thing: my ex ACTIVELY DISLIKED the sport. I can't say don't do it, all I can say is I'll never do it again.

@ clare - okay, YOU JUST MADE MY MONTH!!!!! seriously. I'm so excited I'm almost in tears!

I checked hockeydb while I was writing the post and saw that Legein had played 2 games for the Crunch this season. For some reason, I assumed they were at the beginning of the season before he left - only I just checked the Crunch website and you're right: he made his debut Jan 16th. This is one of those times I am so, SO happy to be wrong!!!!!!!!!

And the best part? Syracuse is two hours from Burnt Hills, so the next time I visit my family, I AM GOING TO SEE HIM PLAY!!!!!!!!!!

wow. how sad am i...

lauren said...

@mer- they played last night, so cheering For Mason = Against the Wings at the time. Detroit lost in OT, if anyone was wondering. But we resigned Zetterberg so I don't even care. =]

@Clare- deal! Now we just have to convince the teams to get seeded that way.

mer said...

@ lauren - I listened to the game. (columbus went from tenth to fifth?!) I meant that I wish Detroit no ill will.

last june 2nd was an entirely different matter - but that was playoffs, so it doesn't count.

hell, if the Bruins win the POW, I'll be cheering for whoever takes the Western Conference title, even if it's the Wings. you can hold me to that.

lauren said...

@mer- the West is ridiculously close this year, with the exception of San Jose (they lead Detroit by six points with one game in hand).

And I'm sure you'll understand when I say that I usually don't care what's going on with Pittsburgh hockey, but I was definitely paying attention last spring. =P

Detroit's going to need some very lucky seeding to get to the Finals, but if they go up against Boston I am SO holding you to that.

mer said...

@lauren - i've noticed how close the west is this year, but for some reason (and correct me if I'm WAY off base) I've always gotten the impression that every season in the west there are a couple great teams and a couple who tank and the ten or so middle teams duke it out for five playoff spots...

the fact that there are 8 teams who are all within a 6 point margin is freaky though.

Columbus has gone from 10th to 5th to 9th in 30 hours. And if the Sharks beat the Coyotes and Columbus beats Ottawa, the Blue Jackets will be back in 6th behind whoever wins the Oilers-Wild game (it's kind of FREAKY that two teams have the SAME record this far into the season)

mer said...

@ lauren - totally meant to say this ages ago, it is unfortunate that Brassard is out for the rest of the season - seven games less and he'd have been counted as a rookie next season...

lauren said...

@mer- honestly, it depends a lot on the year. But typically it's not that hard to pick the eight playoff teams before the beginning of the season- it's just seeding them that's the hard part. This year is different because Chicago will probably make the post-season, and it's looking like Columbus is a strong contender while Colorado has fallen off the map. Plus all the Pacific teams are having a hard time because they have to play San Jose six times (and if SJ keeps Anaheim out of the post-season I will cheer for them until/unless they play Detroit). Also, SJ is now eight points up on Detroit with a game in hand, and the February injury bug just hit us with a vengeance- I think they've got the top spot in the west locked up.

The Brassard thing really bums me out. I'm worried that he'll take a few years to get back to that level once he's back from his injury, and that would just suck.