Wayne Simmonds, left, and other players run a drill during the Philadelphia Flyers' NHL hockey training camp, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
PHILADELPHIA - Steve Mason's goalie helmet looks like a prop straight out of "The Walking Dead."
His airbrushed gear includes American icons Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross and George Washington reimagined as zombies. Yes, Franklin is even, naturally, holding a skeleton key on the eye-popping design.
The art seems fitting since the Flyers were a dead team walking last season—they missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
With Mason in net, the Flyers will try and come back to life as Eastern Conference contenders.
Mason and Ray Emery have one of the more intriguing battles of the preseason as they each try to become the No. 1 goaltender instead of splitting time as a tandem. The first step came Thursday when the Flyers opened training camp under fifth-year coach Peter Laviolette.
Outside the locker room, the goalies talked of a friendship forged through off-season texts, the promise of rooting for the other, and filling any role as long as the team won.
Long gone was any talk of bears or feeling lost in the woods. Out were thoughts on the universe, Siberian Huskies, and Stalin.
Indeed, as Flyers fans will tell you, Ilya Bryzgalov's eccentricities played as much a part in Philadelphia buying out the final seven years of his nine-year contract as his underachieving performance. Mason's ghoulish gear actually seemed upbeat compared to some of the daily stresses the Flyers had in dealing with Bryzgalov.
It's a new feeling in net.
"It's a healthy competition, I guess you could say," Emery said. "Both guys want to play, obviously, as much as they can."
Mason has the chance to prove he's more the goalie who was the NHL's rookie of the year in 2008-09 and not the one who posted a goals-against average of 3-plus each of the next three seasons.
Mason had it all figured out when he went 33-20-7 with 10 shutouts and won the Calder Trophy. But he could never recapture that fleeting success again. He fell to 20 wins and five shutouts the next season, and hasn't had a winning record since he was a rookie. He bottomed out in 2011-12 with a 16-26-3 mark for the Blue Jackets.
Columbus, with just one post-season berth in its history, wanted a clean break last season, and—once and for all—dealt Mason to Philadelphia.
"Whether or not Bryz was coming back, my goal was to come in and be the No. 1 guy here," Mason said. "That's the opportunity as it is now. With Ray coming in, it could have been Ray or it could have been another free agent, but the goal is the same: to be the No. 1 guy."
Emery, who played for the Flyers in 2009-10, went 17-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average for the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks in 2013, but was not a key cog in the post-season. He went 16-11-1 in his lone season with the Flyers before he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his right hip. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, Emery signed with Anaheim in 2011.
He had two solid seasons in Chicago and teamed last season with Corey Crawford to win the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltending duo of the team that allowed the fewest goals.
"I want to have the best camp I can to be ready," Emery said. "I'm sure Steve does as well. It's definitely a healthy situation."
The goalies did take a few passes from injured captain Claude Giroux, who damaged tendons on his right hand last month when a golf club shattered in his grip. Giroux hasn't started shooting, but the former All-Star hopes to be ready for the Oct. 2 opener against Toronto.
NOTES: Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said he's closed the door on bringing back F Simon Gagne. ... Holmgren said he had no hard feelings toward veteran forward Daniel Cleary spurning the Flyers for a return to Detroit. ... Philadelphia opens the preseason Sunday vs. Toronto.