Sitting in his stall after practice, Steve Mason pulled on a ball cap and tried not to look up while he spoke.
“Sometimes, things happen that are hard to understand in the game of hockey,” Mason said. “Honestly, for me, it just happened out of the blue.”
Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese abruptly left the organization on Friday after six years of service, the team announced in a brief media release.
For just about everyone outside the organization, Reese’s departure came out of the blue, especially with just 17 games left in the season.
The truth is, Reese’s simmering relationship with the Flyers’ front office bubbled over beginning with Feb. 26’s game in Toronto when Mason was summoned off the bench.
According to multiple sources, Reese was peeved that Mason relieved starter Rob Zepp after two goals, since Mason was told that day he would not play unless Zepp sustained serious injury.
Sources said Mason was given that word by the team, asking him to suit up because the team had salary cap issues and could not afford another backup goaltender for the game.
That jibes with what Ron Hextall said this past Monday, in his post-trade deadline press conference, revealing specifically that the Flyers skated by the $69 million cap with just $48,000 to spare “the other day.” On Feb. 24, the Carolina game before Toronto while Mason was still injured, the Flyers used an “emergency goaltender exemption” to add rookie Anthony Stolarz to the roster, temporarily exceeding the 23-man limit for 48 hours.
Two days later, Mason said after the team’s pre-game skate in Toronto: “I’d be able to go in there and do the job, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. The game is not there yet. I haven’t had a good skate yet because of the schedule.”
When Mason was then asked during the game that night to go in cold for Zepp, it put Mason in the unfair and awkward position with seemingly no other choice but to say yes.
In his post-game press conference that night following the 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs, coach Craig Berube admitted Mason “would have preferred Zepp to finish the game … but that’s my gut and I went with it.” Mason limped out of Air Canada Centre that night to the team’s bus.
Mason underwent surgery to remove 60 percent of the meniscus in his right knee on Feb. 10, just 16 days prior to playing. The Flyers’ original timeframe for Mason’s return was two-to-four weeks.
Reese voiced his support in defense of his goaltender - and how his injuries have been handled this season - causing friction with the brass that led to his sudden departure on Friday.
Last week in Toronto was at least the third questionable use of Mason since December. He was pulled off the bench on Jan. 27 against Arizona in the first game back from the All-Star break, after not getting as much as one full practice in since first injuring his right knee on Jan. 10. Mason was also used in three consecutive games, despite showing obvious signs of injury, leading up to that Jan. 10 game that he left early against Boston. The Toronto incident was just the cherry on top.
Reese, 48, was not seen at the Flyers' win over St. Louis on Thursday night. He watches each game - at home and on the road - from the press box, and usually joins the team on-ice for practice.
"It was a mutual agreement between both parties," Hextall said in the team’s statement. "Jeff was an integral part of our coaching staff for the past six seasons and we wish him well."
Reese issued a brief statement through the team Friday morning, saying: "I thank the Flyers organization for the opportunity to coach the Flyers for the past six seasons. I've enjoyed my time here and I wish the Flyers all the success in the world. Having said that, I would appreciate it if the media would respect my privacy, as I will not be making any further comment.”
When presented with further reporting, Reese and Mason each declined comment to the Daily News. Hextall did not respond to a message seeking comment.
“I’m sorry, I just have no comment,” Reese said in a text message. “I have nothing to say.”
Reese did not confirm or deny this report when presented with details. In a text message, Mason referred all comment to Hextall.
It is unclear whether other issues were standing between the Flyers and Reese, just that Mason’s injuries just served as a catalyst.
Mason, 26, was clearly bothered after the Flyers’ practice on Friday. If it wasn’t for Reese, who spends hours watching video of opposing goaltenders, Mason may well have not landed on his feet. Reese was the main reason the Flyers acquired him from the Blue Jackets on April 3, 2013 in a small trade deadline day deal which ultimately resurrected his career.
Mason enters Saturday’s all-important game in Boston tied for 5th in the NHL with a .926 save percentage.
“Hockey is a game all about confidence, especially from the goaltending position,” Mason said. “When I got here, I had zero confidence. It was well-documented. I was beat down in Columbus. I didn’t enjoy the game.
“He instilled the belief in this organization that I could find my game back. From an on-ice and off-ice perspective, he was nothing but good things for me. He was very receptive to my input. He was someone that was easy to work with. He was someone I felt I could confide my feelings to. He is somebody that I owe my career to. If it wasn’t for ‘Reeser,’ I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
Mason admitted Thursday’s win against St. Louis was “a real hard game to focus on just because of the circumstances and what was going on.”
So, why now? Why on the day before the perhaps the Flyers’ biggest game of the season in Boston, a do-or-die game against the team they’re chasing?
Berube did not have an answer. He said he was not concerned about how Mason would react on Saturday in such a pivotal moment.
“‘Reeser' is a great coach,” Berube said, referring all other questions to the team’s statement. “You read the release. No further comment.”
When asked how the Flyers will handle goaltending coaching over the final 5 weeks of the season, Berube said: "We'll figure it out.” The sense is Flyers scout Neil Little will assist as needed to finish out the year.
Reese was hired by the Flyers on June 25, 2009 after spending the previous decade working with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was a member of the coaching staff for Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
Reese took on some large projects in goal with the Flyers over the years - from a combative Ray Emery to Michael Leighton to Ilya Bryzgalov to Mason’s revival. He dealt with a three-ringed circus goalie carousel in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs and used hand motions to work with Sergei Bobrovsky. Leighton credited Reese with making physical changes to his game, positioning him better further back in the crease. It paid off with a trip to the 2010 Stanley Cup final on the back of a guy who was on waivers in December of that season.
Still, through all the coaching and mechanics aspect of the game, Reese's biggest role was as confidant, motivator and cheerleader.
“He was the one who got me to the point that I am in my career,” Mason said. “Yesterday was an extremely difficult day for myself, just trying to play over everything in my head. I owe a ton to him.”
On Twitter: @frank_seravalli