During a road trip two years ago, Augusta Lynx winger Wes Mason walked into a Mississippi riverboat casino with then-teammate Stu Bodtker.
Bodtker walked out with a check for $97,000, the winner of a slot-machine jackpot.
Mason walked out with an even greater payout - a wife, and a new lease on a life.
"I think I'm the one who won the jackpot," said Mason, who returned to the Lynx after two years with Orlando of the now-defunct International Hockey League.
"I met this amazing girl out of the blue. One thing led to another, and we got engaged. It was pure luck."
Mason and his new bride, Leah, were married July 8, thus beginning the next chapter in a life that once was spiraling downward.
His off-ice world now centered on marriage and religion, the 23-year-old Mason is focused on a quest for hockey nirvana in his second tour of duty with the Lynx.
"This year has been the best year of my life, from coming back from an injury to winning a championship in Orlando, to getting married and becoming a Christian, to coming back here to Augusta," Mason said. "It's great being in a place I love and playing for a team that wants to win."
With the Lynx two seasons ago, Mason's promising career seemed destined to take flight.
Mason began the 1999-2000 under contract with the NHL's New Jersey Devils, and was in the midst of a breakout season with the Lynx when the Devils traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers in November 1999.
He tallied 18 goals and 38 points in 28 games with the Lynx to earn a spot on the ECHL All-Star team. A few weeks after the all-star game, it appeared his big break finally had come when the Thrashers promoted the gritty winger to Orlando.
With the Solar Bears, he finished the year with 11 goals and 26 points in 33 games, seemingly solidifying himself as a Thrashers prospect.
But after six games with Orlando last season, Mason suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder and missed the next three months. He returned in mid-January and helped the Solar Bears capture the Turner Cup title, leading the club in playoff scoring.
"I figured a team like Atlanta would look at the young guys down in Orlando who won a championship," Mason said. "But they went another direction. It was kind of bothersome. Every NHL team saw me in the playoffs last year. The best I could get was an invite to training camp. At this point, that wasn't enough."
Stunned when Atlanta didn't re-sign him, Mason renewed old ties with the Lynx, searching for a fresh start.
Those with the team during Mason's first stint in Augusta have noticed significant changes in his approach to both hockey and life.
"I used to burn the candle at both ends big time before I was saved six years ago," Lynx trainer Brian Patafie said. "I think Wes is in the same boat. I think he had some growing up to do, and he did."
After a slow start offensively with one goal and three points in his first five games, Mason was bumped from the top line by coach Jim Burton.
The move was designed to align him with promising rookie center Patrick Yetman more than it was a demotion. But Mason admits that, two years ago, he probably would not have been so receptive.
"Now, I can see the big picture," he said.
Said Patafie: "The old Wes Mason would have called his agent, his dad, the bus driver and anyone else he could have complained to about it. But he didn't pout. He's committed to this team now."
On the ice, Burton expects big things from the old Mason.
"Forty goals; that's what I expect from Wes," Burton said. "I think that's certainly attainable. He's not off to the start he wants, but you're seeing signs it's coming around. He's got to play his game. He's not a razzle-dazzle guy. He's an agitator. If he sticks to that, he's going to produce."
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