Jackets reeled in prized rookie

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

Rarely one to show his cards, Ken Hitchcock's poker face cracked when asked about Steve Mason.

In the midst of a rookie NHL season in which the 20-year-old currently leads the loop with a 1.99 goals-against average, Hitchcock was asked yesterday morning if the youngster would get the start last night.

"Yes," beamed the Columbus Blue Jackets coach before exiting the morning scrum with an exclamation mark.

"And forever."

Despite a half-dozen injuries in the first half that would've crippled most established clubs, the rag-tag Blue Jackets entered last night's game at the 'Dome just three points out of a playoff spot in the wicked West.

While Rick Nash's heroics have accounted for a good number of their wins, Mason is the reason there's still hockey hope in Ohio. And that's why Hitch plans on riding Mason as far as the Oakville, Ont., native will take them this year and beyond.

"I don't want to say 'season-saver' because the season's not over, but without his play and in the absence of (injured starter Pascal) Leclaire, we'd be in tough," said former Flames defenceman Mike Commodore, who has seen Mason post a league-leading six shutouts in 29 starts.

"I didn't know anything about him coming in here. Had no clue who he was. I haven't watched the world juniors in a little while, I guess."

Those who did may recall Mason claiming tourney MVP honours at the 2008 tourney. Going 5-0 with a 1.19 GAA and .951 save percentage, the third-round draft pick gave Jackets brass hope they had the perfect compliment to a defence-first system.

However, a knee injury that quashed his Memorial Cup hopes in Kitchener last year prompted more surgery this fall and led to a season-opening stint in the minors. Less than two weeks later, he was called up and has since dominated by coupling an athletic, 6-foot-4, 212-lb. frame with a mental toughness galvanized by several setbacks in his young career. Not only did he question his future as a seldom-used OHL backup in London three years back, but he also suffered a concussion the night before the Canada/Russia Super Series camp, leaving him off the roster.

Hours before backstopping Canada to gold at the world juniors, Mason dealt brilliantly with being traded by London to Kitchener, and this summer, he watched helplessly as his father fought a life-threatening battle against blood clots caused by pneumonia.

"It's tough a lot of times, but that's part of being a professional -- you have to learn how to handle it," said Mason, 17-11-1 and tied for third in the NHL with a .929 save percentage. "You definitely grow up pretty fast in this kind of position, and I've experienced a lot of stuff in the last year. With my dad, it was definitely an extremely tough time for me and my family. Obviously, it worked out in the end, but it was a scary time and it shows you what really matters in life."

Although a man of few words, Mason is quick to credit his teammates for both their defensive support and the way they opted not to treat him like a rookie.

"Everybody thinks it's amazing, but we don't feel that way," said Hitchcock of his Calder candidate who recently set a rookie record with three consecutive shutouts. "Everybody makes an issue about age, but when you have hockey sense, age is out the door."

Veteran Mike Peca likens Mason's early dominance to that of a young Sean Burke and his coolness to that of Chris Osgood -- both of whom are Stanley Cup champs.

"He's played a big part in our success, no question," said Peca. "But I think for any team to be in a race, you need a goalie to make big saves at big times. That's he's doing it as a rookie makes it a better story."

Sure does -- just ask Hitch.


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