Chris Mason remembers the feeling of standing in goal, on national television, ready to play for a national championship.
The only thing missing, he says?
“I really wasn’t that nervous,” says Mason, now a goaltender for the NHL’s Nashville Predators. “There were so many nerves along the way, just getting there, that it really was just another hockey game.”
Except this hockey game was the national championship game at the 1994 Air Canada Cup National Midget Championship in Brandon, MB, broadcast coast-to-coast on TSN, and Mason was the star netminder for the Red Deer Chiefs.
The Chiefs had grabbed the final playoff spot in the Alberta Midget Hockey League and, with the help of future NHLers Mason and Shane Willis, had climbed to within one win of Canadian Midget hockey’s ultimate prize.
“Just getting there was one of the best experiences of my life,” Mason says. “We had had such a tough time getting there, getting the last spot and fighting through the playoffs. We felt like nothing could stop us.”
The only thing standing between them and a championship? The Regina Pat Canadians, one of the most successful Midget franchises in the country.
But the Chiefs stayed with the Pat Canadians, even as the game went into overtime.
Willis would have the best chance for the Albertans, ringing a shot off the goalpost, before Regina would get the winner past Mason, denying Red Deer their best shot at a national title.
“We thought we played the perfect final, and to lose in overtime…we were crushed,” Mason says. “It’s a huge letdown to get that close, and then go home empty-handed.”
After wrapping up his Midget career in the national final, Mason moved on to the WHL’s Prince George Cougars, where he starred for three years, becoming a 5th round draft pick (122nd overall) of the New Jersey Devils in 1995.
Signed by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks prior to the 1997-98 season, Mason lasted just more than a year in the Mighty Ducks’ system before being traded to Nashville on the eve of the 1998-99 season.
He made his NHL debut for the Predators on against Anaheim, stopping all eight shots he faced in relief of starter Mike Dunham.
But it would take six more years for Mason to become a full-time NHLer, as he spent four seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals, one with the San Antonio Rampage and the 2004-05 season with Valerengen IF, leading them to a Norwegian League championship.
“It was tough to see so many guys I played against move up, and think ‘I know I’m better than them’,” Mason says of his minor league career. “A lot of other guys get bitter and get frustrated, but I get to play hockey for a living, so how can I complain?”
After spending 2003--06 seasons as back-up to number one guy Tomas Vokoun in Nashville, the 31-year-old got his chance in 2006-07 when Vokoun went down with a thumb injury in late November.
Mason made 21 consecutive starts between November 26th and January 6th, and won more games over the course of the season (24) than he had in the rest of his NHL career (16).
“It’s a lot easier when you’re the guy,” Mason says of being a starter, as opposed to a back-up. “You’ve got the comfort level of knowing you’re going to play every night, and you can really get into a groove.”
He certainly found his groove in 2006-07, setting a franchise record for shutouts in a season (five, tied with Vokoun), finishing second in the NHL in save percentage (.925), and even picking up his first NHL assist on November 29th against Philadelphia.
Of course, Mason is one of the rare goaltenders who picked up first NHL assist after his first NHL goal.
On , Phoenix forward Geoff Sanderson shot the puck into his own net, and since Mason was the last Nashville player to touch the puck, he was credited with the goal, becoming just the ninth NHL goaltender to score during a game.
“It was a cheesy goal,” a sheepish Mason said after the game. “Someone else should have received it.”