Red Hot Blue Jacket

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:48 AM ET

One of the few awkward moments in Steve Mason's sensational first NHL season happened at the league's awards show last month in Las Vegas.

The Columbus Blue Jackets goalie watched normally soft-handed Chicago Blackhawks scorer Pat Kane and a former London Knights teammate struggle to open an envelope revealing his Calder Trophy successor as rookie of the year.

"I was sitting there saying to myself, 'Kaner, just get that thing open and put me out of my misery,'" Mason said with a grin. "And when I went on stage (after winning it), I shook Luc Robitaille's hand, then went in for a hug with Pat but the trophy was in between us and there wasn't a lot of room."

So they botched the big embrace.

But not much else went afoul this season.

Mason, targeted for an American Hockey League campaign before a rash of goalie injuries landed him the big Blue Jackets job, impressed enough to earn the ultimate invitation -- a spot at the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team orientation camp Aug. 24-27 at Calgary.

Five goalies are invited to joust for the Vancouver trip. Three get the call.

The favourites -- New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo -- have reached crease superhero status. It's difficult to imagine a Team Canada without them.

Mason is the youngest and, at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, the biggest. He'll battle a couple of Stanley Cup winners --Carolina's Cam Ward and Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury -- for the No. 3 spot.

"I've played for Canada internationally before (MVP and gold medal at the 2008 world juniors) but this is a whole different level with all the star players in the NHL," Mason, 21, said. "I idolized Martin Brodeur as a kid and I've played against Roberto Luongo, who I really respect.

"It would be unbelievable to get the chance to be part of it. I think the Olympics first hit home for me in 2002 when Canada won it.

"I was (13 years old) and I was at my best friend's house (in Oakville) and we went out after the gold medal game and played road hockey."

Those are fond memories and these are exciting times in what has been, off the ice, a stressful stretch.

Mason's father Bill has battled health problems lately. Steve badly wanted his father to fly to Vegas with the family but doctors advised against it.

"It's been on-going and they don't know what's wrong with him," Mason said.

"They thought he had a heart attack last Friday and he's been through all kinds of tests to figure out what's going on.

"It would've been great to have him go with us. It's going to be a long summer. I know my mom (Donna) will feel better when all this crap is over."

Mason still has to find a way to perform while worrying about his dad.

He made his name this year. But goaltending is a fragile business. Hot shots rise and fall all the time.

Consistency is the key. That's what Team Canada's GM Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock, as well as Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock (again a Canadian assistant) will watch for in the fall.

The next step is becoming a complete goalie. He was a strong puckhandler in junior but that hasn't translated as much to the pros yet.

"The OHL was good hockey but the NHL is a different level," Mason said. "It's a lot faster and guys play their position better. My defencemen really helped me out this year. It was a learning experience and I'm a better goaltender for getting the chance I did."

Mason lost the Vezina Trophy as NHL top goalie to Boston Bruins veteran Tim Thomas this year. He doesn't want to make it a habit.

"I got to talk to Tim and he's so intense on the ice but off it, he seems like a very nice, relaxed guy," Mason said. "He deserved the Vezina this year but I'm hoping I'll be able to win a couple of them down the road."

The Blue Jackets needed a goalie coach to replace tough-luck Clint Malarchuk, injured by shooting himself in the chin with a hunting rifle last fall.

Columbus GM Scott Howson asked Mason his thoughts. He spoke glowingly of his old London mentor Dave Rook and Howson hired him.

"I wasn't really working with any goalie coach and I was going to be the one working with someone the most so I thought it was a wise move for them to ask me what I felt," Mason said. "It's not just anyone. It's someone I know and trust. Dave knows me and he was really responsible for my game.

"I'm happy to be working with him again."

Mason's also pleased a familiar face -- teammate Rick Nash -- will be at orientation camp in Calgary and back in Columbus after re-upping with the Blue Jackets.

Mason led the NHL with 10 shutouts but a goalie can't win if his team doesn't score. Nash remains one of the most productive offensive options in the league and clearly senses a bright future -- and pretty solid present with Mason between the pipes.

"Him re-signing is a huge thing for the organization and I think it shows he believes in what's going on," Mason said. "You want a guy like that to stay.

"Columbus has been a very comfortable place to land in the NHL. They've been very supportive. The coaches, if you're playing well, they leave you alone. If not, you're going to hear about it."

There are some who believe Mason appeared in too many games (61) as a first-year goalie. The club brought in veteran Mathieu Garon to ease that load.

But the big games -- ones against division rivals Detroit or Chicago, against the better goalies like Brodeur, Luongo and Marty Turco of Dallas, and top shooters like Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Calgary's Jarome Iginla -- still will belong to Mason.

They finally made the playoffs for the first time. But winning those games is the next step in the Blue Jackets' franchise development.

Mason is the guy who can make or break it. That's exciting for Columbus.

It's also optimistic for the Canadian Olympic program and one young star who would love to make the dream trip.

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MASON'S MAGICAL RIDE

2005-06: Played 12 games as a rookie for the London Knights. Picked in the third round of the 2006 NHL draft, 69th overall by Columbus.

2006-07: Set OHL record with 45 wins (broken this year by Windsor's Andrew Engelage) and named OHL goalie of the year.

2007-08: Traded to Memorial Cup host Kitchener Rangers after backstopping the Canadian team to the world junior gold medal in Sweden. Injured his knee in the second round of the playoffs. Misses the rest of his final junior season and undergoes knee surgery.

2008-09: Plays three games in the American Hockey League with the Syracuse Crunch, then 61 more in first NHL season with Columbus. Led Blue Jackets to first playoff appearance, where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Named Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year and Vezina Trophy finalist.

2008.


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