Chris Mason didn’t know what to expect when he headed into free agency July 1st as the 34-year-old from Red Deer was exploring new territory.
“It was the first time I got to July 1st (unsigned) and the feeling was a little unsettling,” explained Mason, who didn’t take long to ink a two-year $3.7 million contract with the Atlanta Thrashers.
While the Thrashers may not have been Mason’s first choice as he would have liked to have remained in St. Louis, but they gave the veteran netminder what he wanted.
“I had a couple of other calls, but it came down to basically Atlanta was the last club with a starting job available,” he explained. “I felt I should take this spot as it was what I was asking for.
“I had other options, but not as much playing time.”
Mason also liked what he heard from the Thrashers during a meeting, which included GM Rick Dudley.
The Thrashers could be an up-and-coming team as they had talent with the likes of Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Rich Peverley, Nik Andropov and Niclas Bergfors and have added four players — Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager — off the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“They’re putting together a team that wants to win now,” Mason said. “So that made my decision that much easier.”
The Thrashers also have a new coach in Craig Ramsay.
“From everything I hear he’s an awesome coach and I’m looking forward to working with him,” Mason added.
Mason slides in to replace Johan Hegberg as the Thrashers No. 1 netminder and will be working with 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec.
Mason has been the starting netminder for the St. Louis Blues the last two seasons after leaving Nashville following the 2007-08 season. He posted a 57-43-15 record with the Blues and a .915 save percentage, which was in the top 10 for goaltenders playing over 100 games the last two years. He also had a solid 2.41 goals-against-average in 2008-09 and 2.53 last season.
In fact it appeared as if Mason would be returning to the Blues this year.
“Basically it was a done deal,” he explained. “They said there was a couple of things they had to talk about and would call back on Wednesday (June 16). They called and said they had a couple more things to look at and then I got a call Thursday and they say they wanted to let me know they were going in a different direction.”
What the Blues did was pick up Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens, leaving Mason on the outside.
It didn’t sit well with Mason, who has been a regular in the NHL for five seasons.
“It caught me off guard . . . they basically blindsided me,” he said. “But that’s the way it goes. That’s the business side of the game. The tough side. The playing is the fun side.”
And he still loves playing and was glad to sign the two-year deal. In fact he hopes to stick around for several more years.
“I keep myself in good in good shape and I’ve been healthy my whole career so as long as I can play well I’d love to keep playing,” said the former Red Deer midget Chief star. “I hope for at least another five years.”
That doesn’t seem out of reach.
“These days players are paying more attention to conditioning and making sure they don’t let themselves go in the off season so they’re all playing longer,” said Mason. “I know I feel really good, so really I haven’t set a time line (for calling it quits) yet.”
While Mason has made himself a solid NHL netminder he’s also helped the Canadian national team, playing the last two years in the World Championships.
This year was disappointing for Mason as Canada was eliminated in the quarter-finals — losing 5-2 to Russia.
“It was tough as we had eight guys under 20 on the team, plus there was a three and a half week break after the NHL season and the tournament which didn’t help. The European teams all had a training camp while the U.S. and ourselves got together, went over and had a couple of practices then started playing.
“But I enjoy it and would do it again, although next year I hope to be in the (NHL) playoffs,” he concluded.