It is not a secret or a surprise how important confidence is to any goaltender.
It is shocking, however, the way Steve Mason rediscovered his.
The beleaguered Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender credits a switch to bigger equipment for his best stretch of the last three seasons, a run that had the 23-year-old eager to return Saturday in Vancouver despite still having 23-stitches – in multiple layers – in his blocker hand from a skate cut all the way down to the bone that forced him to miss three games.
“The adrenaline kind of takes away whatever pain is there,” Mason said after making 34 saves – several of them impressive — during a 4-3 loss to the Canucks Saturday night.
Mason knows something about pain. As he told InGoal Magazine two days earlier, playing hurt had become an everyday occurrence before updating the undersized equipment he’d been wearing since junior hockey in early February. Mason was 1-7-1 with a .880 save percentage in 10 starts before the switch, but went 7-3-1 with a .922 after increasing the size of his pants and chest-arm protection to better fit his 6-foot-4, 217-pound frame. (Contrary to other reports, Mason said his leg pads are not bigger, just a bit stiffer so they don’t break down as fast).
The increased gear size, which was allowed only after consultation with the NHL’s top goalie cop, Kay Whitmore, isn’t just about adding blocking surface, though that helps too. Shockingly, Mason said the biggest issue is he was getting hurt in the smaller gear – to the point he actually started turning away from high shots to try and lessen some of the impact.
“If you are getting hit by pucks and it’s hurting, it’s human nature to kind of turn away from it and not really square up as much as you can,” Mason said. “You’d almost try and turn to cushion it. That’s not the way to play the game and with the new stuff it’s given me the peace of mind to face the shot square on and that’s the way the position is supposed to be played.”
Mason said the models he wears haven’t changed, just the sizing, with the bigger pants worn “really, really loose” but still allowing him to tuck in a larger chest protector. The difference is now it doesn’t pull it tight to his torso. The looser fit leaves air between the gear and body to cushion the blow, whereas before it was like bulletproof vest – it may save your life, but you’re going to feel it. Mason used to finish practice with bruises all over his ribs, but said there is more, thicker padding along the outer edge of his new chest-arm unit, whereas the older one was “pretty much just like fabric” along the outside and over the side of his rib cage.
“You should have seen me some days, my entire rib cage would be black and blue,” Mason said. “For sure it affects your confidence … We play Nashville six times a year with Shea Weber shooting the puck over 100 miles an hour and when you’re getting that in the ribs and the equipment is not taking the brunt of the force, that’s pretty uncomfortable … A lot of times on pucks up (at the shoulder) I would turn away because it hurt and that’s human nature. Now I just face it square on, and if it hits you so be it, the padding will take the force.”
Mason said the upper “wings” of his new chest-arm protection – the part that comes up from the chest to cover the shoulders – is stiffer now, with more, improved shoulder cap protection underneath both, eliminating the shots he’d feel off the edge of the shoulder, and pushing those chest “wings” forward, again providing a cushion between the body to reduce impact.
Turning away from shots not only made Mason appear smaller but it also often left more of the net exposed if the puck was tipped and he’d already surrendered his “square-ness” to the puck’s path. Now not only does he looks bigger because he’s staying square, but he feels bigger too, something he noticed right away with the new gear back on Feb. 11.
“My first game in the new gear there was a play where I was down and moving to my right and my arm was out a bit and I was still able to get a piece of the puck, where before I knew for sure that was going in the net,” said Mason, who had won four straight before the Canucks loss. “But it got a bit of my arm, dropped down in front of my pad and was an easy cover up.”
The four-game winning streak was his longest in more than a calendar year, and Mason credits the new equipment for playing a big role in an improving mindset.
So what took so long? Mason said he simply wasn’t aware he was wearing smaller gear than the new rules allowed, and after trying to make so many other changes in his game, it took a while for new goalie coach Ian Clark to convince him to switch his gear too.
Mason, who was hearing talk the Blue Jackets may buy out the final year of his contract next season, is glad he finally did, and may force them to think twice with this late run.
“It gives you more confidence out there,” Mason said of the gear swap. “It just seems in general you look bigger, gives the guys less to look at when they are coming down the wing and any time you can have a competitive advantage like that it definitely helps.”
Especially when it also means you no longer have to flinch on every shot.
Equipment is far from the only adjustment Mason has made after struggling miserably for two seasons after his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2008-09. It’s been a hard road mentally – and sometimes hard to remember he’s just 23 – but Mason talked candidly with InGoal about the adjustments on and off the ice. Look for more in the next digital magazine in April.