Mason gets the nod

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

PARDUBICE, Czech Republic -- Three years ago he couldn't cut it with a second-tier junior team in Ontario.

Today, he's carrying the hopes of a nation as Team Canada's No. 1 goaltender for the playoff round at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

Steve Mason of Oakville, Ont., would like to say hello to all those who doubted him.

"A lot of people had written me off," Mason was saying here yesterday. "That was just another motivational tool: 'He's playing Junior C and he's probably going to end up doing nothing with his career.' I'm a pretty competitive guy. That's one of the things I have going for me. I'm pretty proud of all that I've achieved."

Today Mason takes the first step toward what he hopes is the ultimate junior hockey achievement, starting for Canada in a sudden-death quarter-final against Finland (9 a.m. CST, TSN).

Sudden death is what some people thought happened to his career as a 16-year-old, when he played for the Junior C, Grimsby Peach Kings, after he failed to make it in Ontario's tier-two junior loop.

Always a backup, never anyone's No. 1 guy, was Mason's story, from age nine, when he decided to play goal, until the year he led the Peach Kings to the Junior C final.

That got him into major junior hockey, with the Ontario League's London Knights, where in the back of his mind he thought he could play, all along.

Last season, he set an Ontario League record with 45 wins and a Canadian junior record with 13 assists, suggesting the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets made a pretty good choice with their third-round selection in the 2006 draft.

COMPETES

Today, he wants to prove someone right, instead of wrong -- specifically, Team Canada boss Craig Hartsburg, who chose him over Jonathan Bernier.

"We feel Mason's the guy," Hartsburg said. "A big guy, handles the puck well, competes extremely hard. It's nothing Jonathan did wrong."

Mason's puck-handling skills were in his favour, and although he's had easier games than Bernier here, he benefitted from the fact Hartsburg, a coach in the Ontario League, knows him so well.

"We played him in the playoffs last year, so I know what he's about," Hartsburg said.

Mason was in goal when Canada beat Denmark, 4-1, Monday. He also shut out the Slovaks in Game 2 of the preliminary round.

Bernier turned in Canada's best goaltending performance (a 44-save shutout of the Czechs, Game 1) and its shakiest (the 4-3 loss to the Swedes). His disappointment was as visible as Mason's enthusiasm.

"To be Canada's No. 1 goaltender for the world junior tournament is an unbelievable feeling," Mason said. "I've got a big smile on my face."


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