By Mike Williscraft
Memories, former teammates and a commemorative banner all awaited Grimsby Peach King alumni goaltender Steve Mason on Sunday afternoon.
Mason, who played goal for the Jr. C organization in 2004-05 – backstopping them to a seven-game loss in the Schmalz Cup finals at the age of 15 – went on to a solid OHL career with London Knights and Kitchener Rangers.
From there, Mason earned the Calder Trophy as the National Hockey League’s Rookie of The Year off his 2008-09 performance for Columbus Blue Jackets where he posted a 33-20-7 record with a goals against of 2.29 while posting 10 shutouts.
The life of a goaltender is all about ups and downs and Mason’s trip to the show got started with a combination of each.
“I had been trying out with the Burlington Cougars in the Tier II Jr. A league. I was last cut right before the season started and had gone back to Midget AAA in Oakville,” said Mason, an Oakville native.
“Somehow the Peach Kings heard I was available and goalie coach Steve Foster came to see me. They treated me like gold right from the start. The Cougars called me halfway through the season asking me to go play for them. I told them to take a hike. Grimsby was a great situation.”
It was so good, in fact, Mason said he has told anyone who asks that his year as a Peach King was his most cherished time in hockey.
“It was my favourite year, including minor hockey, the OHL and NHL. I was 15-16 when I was here and the team had a great group of older guys who took care of me,” said Mason.
On Sunday, a few of them returned to reminisce with Mason and enjoy another long-time Peach King tradition.
“Kyle Hodges and Nick Stoehr were there Sunday. We stood at the glass and talked most of the game. It was good to see Dave (Brownridge, Peach Kings coach), too. Then we went back to Teddy’s for beer and wings. It was great to be back,” said Mason.
Another familiar face Mason saw was that of former Peach King owner Lyle Killins.
Killins recalled Mason arriving on the scene and immediately impressing with his raw skills.
“He was just so quick. His footwork and speed…for a big kid it was amazing how quick he was. I said to Teddy (Jaskula, co-owner of Teddy’s Sports Bar) ‘this kid is going to the show’,” said Killins last week.
After the next season with London Knights, in which he only played in a handful of games, Mason was drafted by the Blue Jackets as a 16-year-old.
“It was crazy. I had scouts coming to see me in warm ups for game I wasn’t even starting in,” recalled Mason, noting he gives full credit to goaltending coach with the Knights David Rook, who worked with him constantly to develop his craft.
And craft was developed and ready when lady luck shone on Mason again as he prepared to start his pro career with Syracuse Crunch.
“The Blue Jackets’ goalie Pascal Leclair got hurt and I got called up. I was just about to move into my condo and all my stuff had arrived. I went to Columbus and never went back. My mom and dad went down and picked up my stuff,” he recalled.
The call up was so sudden, his parents, Bill and Donna, could not get to see his first NHL game, an overtime win over Edmonton Oilers.”
“They got to the second and third, wins over Calgary and Montreal, so that was pretty cool. Three wins over Canadian teams and Montreal was always my mom’s favourite, so that was special.”
A series of injuries, including four knee surgeries, have ended Mason’s career. He has been splitting his time between Oakville and a Muskoka cottage with his wife, Brittany and two young daughters.
He is also looking to help out at some goalie schools and with Oakville’s minor hockey program. Ready with advice, Mason knows where kids should prioritize.
“I didn’t play goal for my first five years in hockey. That allowed me to develop my skating and learn the flow of the game,” said Mason.
“It’s not glamorous, but skating is the key. That gives balance and strength when you need to push post to post from your knees.”
As well, he said giving youth a chance to play multiple sports – including lacrosse, golf, soccer – will provide a needed break and prevent burn out.
“It was an honour to have Steve in town Sunday, especially seeing how humble he is. He played one season here and you wouldn’t know it by the connection he has with the team. It’s a testament to how much players respect coach Brownridge and the culture he brings to the team. My hope is to continue and build on that,” said Simon Duong, one of the current Peach Kings owners.