Their first date was a night at iconic Grandma’s Saloon in Duluth.
Bob Mason was a sophomore goalie with the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. He had just shut out rival North Dakota 3-0 that Friday night in January 1983. His twin brother, Billy, a Bulldogs forward, brought his cheerleader girlfriend and one of her friends, Victoria.
“That was a big weekend,” understated Mason, the goaltender coach for the Minnesota Wild.
More like life-changing.
Bob and Victoria dated for eight years while his career pinballed from the 1984 Winter Olympics to the NHL, with stops in Washington, Chicago, Quebec and Vancouver before they married in 1991.
Twenty-seven years later, the couple is going through a tougher life-changing experience.
Victoria has Stage 4 urothelial cancer. Diagnosed in May 2017 she endured 14 months of chemotherapy but the cancer has spread to her lung. She is being treated with an immunotherapy drug designed to boost her immune system, but there is no cure and the side effects are harsh.
“We’re living with cancer, but we’re not dying with it,” Mason said Monday. “That’s what I’m always trying to reiterate with her.”
The Masons’ story resonates as the Wild and NHL host Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center. The joint venture between the league and NHL Players Association is in its 20th year raising money for cancer research.
Minnesota players will wear lavender jerseys during warmups before their game against the Arizona Coyotes. The dasher boards will light up in lavender during commercial breaks, and coaches on both teams will wear similarly colored neckties.
The Wild, which is partnering with four local cancer organizations, will auction a team autographed jersey on its website.
“When you’re told it’s cancer, there’s a knot in your stomach that won’t go away,” Mason said. “And then to find out it’s Stage 4, you’re like …”
Mason stopped mid-sentence and pivoted to stories of patients who have managed the disease for years or gone into remission. The road is long but there is hope.
He points to former Capitals teammate Craig Laughlin, now a television broadcaster for the team, and his wife Linda.
“His wife is 60, Victoria is 60. I’m her big-time support system, trying to be really positive and keep her going. It’s going to be a roller coaster, big time.”
The troubles started in February 2016, when doctors initially diagnosed her with diverticulitis — inflammation in the walls of the intestines. In March 2017 Mason left the Wild during a road trip to be with Victoria after doctors found a spot on one of her lungs.
Tests showed the nodule was benign. Two months later, however, she found blood in her urine. Scanning her kidneys doctors saw the spot on her lung had not gone away. A needle biopsy determined the tumor was malignant.
It had started in her kidneys and metastasized to her lung.
Fourteen months of chemotherapy shrank the tumors some, but it did not eradicate all the cancerous cells. In August, Victoria started immunotherapy treatment. Initial tests showed the tumors to be about the same size as when they were discovered.
“We’re just trying to keep it at bay,” Mason said. “I’m with her most of the time, but I’ve had a little diversion coming to work. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”
Hired in 2002, Mason is Minnesota pro sports’ longest-serving coach. He has managed a diverse roster of goaltenders, from temperamental Manny Fernandez and Josh Harding to the laid back like Dwayne Roloson and Niklas Backstrom.
Mason has another dynamic duo in Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock now. Sometimes the pupils end up doing the coaching to raise Mason’s spirits.
“You’ve just got to be there to listen, make sure if he needs to stay home for a road trip or practice, let him know I’ll be OK,” Dubnyk said. “There are things that are more important. He’s done that a couple times. It’s not something you want anybody to go through. It’s tough.”
The Masons choose to focus on the uplifting stories of Stage 4 patients who have learned how to manage symptoms and side effects and others who have successfully battled it into remission.
“If you’re front and center, 24/7 with it, you could get mixed up in a downward spiral pretty quick,” he said. “I’ve got to try to keep her out of that.”