The late Shawn Walsh used to joke about how he earned a roster spot as the third-string goalie on the Bowling Green State University hockey team.
“We were going to put a [shooting] board up in front of the goal, but Shawn was worse,” quipped Mason.
Mason, who died at the age of 76 on Sunday night, went on to become a college hockey icon.
He also was the mentor to Walsh, who was one of the best and most successful coaches in the University of Maine’s athletic history. His teams won two national championships and posted a 399-215-44 record before he died of cancer at age 46 in 2001.
Mason saw something in the charismatic and sometimes-brash Walsh. He once noted that Walsh possessed good basic teaching skills and organizational skills, which led him to eventually hire Walsh as an assistant coach at Bowling Green before taking him to Michigan State as an assistant.
“Ron always liked young coaches with a hunger [to succeed],” said UMaine hockey coach Red Gendron.
Mason nurtured Walsh’s potential.
He said he knew Walsh would be a success because “he is a tireless worker, he knows the game well, and he’s a good recruiter.”
Walsh wound up marrying Mason’s daughter, Tracey, and they provided him with two grandsons, Tyler and Travis Walsh, before divorcing. Tyler Walsh wound up working for the hockey program at UMaine and graduated from the school.
Mason began his coaching career at Lake Superior State in 1966 before moving on to Bowling Green and Michigan State. When he started coaching, it was difficult for former U.S. college players to make it to the NHL.
But Mason, along with other coaching icons such as Boston College’s Jerry York, Michigan’s Red Berenson and former Boston University coach Jack Parker gradually changed the landscape of college hockey. They groomed players to play in the NHL.
Fifty of Mason’s former Spartans have worn or are wearing NHL jerseys.
Mason also was innovative. He and Berenson started a trend by having their teams play the first outdoor hockey game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, on Oct. 6, 2004. It attracted 74,544, which represented the largest crowd to ever watch a hockey game.
There have been dozens of such outdoor games since then, both at the college and the NHL levels.
Mason, who has been inducted into several halls of fame, was a classy man as well as being an exceptional coach.
I enjoyed talking to him because he was always an engaging interview. He was candid, insightful and had a good sense of humor.
He cared deeply about his players and about growing the college game.
It was coaches like Mason who elevated the college game to the level it is now.
In the 2000-01 season, 20 percent of NHL rosters were comprised of college players. Now it is over 31 percent.
He had to be proud of college hockey’s growth.
The Frozen Four has become an attractive event for major venues. When the 2018 Frozen Four is held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, it will mark the 16th time in 17 years that it will have been played in an NHL rink.
It only seemed fitting that the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins tied a record for most U.S. college players on its roster (13) and set the record for most in the final (11).
Mason will be missed, but his legacy will live on.