Since 1968, the National Hockey League hands out the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey. But very few fans know who Bill Masterton was.
Born in Winnipeg but an American citizen, Masterton was in some ways ahead of his time. He starred in the NCAA, leading the Denver Pioneers to championships in 1960 and '61. In that final year, he scored an amazing 80 points in 32 games. Even so, a college player making the NHL was almost unheard of until the 1980s.
Masterton was one of 21 players named to the NCAA's 50th anniversary team in 1997. After graduation, Masterton played in the minor leagues for a few years and also obtained a master's degree from Denver. That led to a job in Minneapolis with Honeywell, a manufacturer of civil and military avionics and other aerospace products.
Remember this was the days of the Original Six, where the only thing scarcer than NHL jobs was good money. There were no million dollar contracts back then, so the steady income must have looked mighty appealing. Though Masterton was on the fast track in business, he still wanted to play hockey.
Masterton played for two more years with St. Paul of the USHL and spent a year on the U.S. national team. And when the NHL doubled in size in 1967 and expanded to Minneapolis, the 28 year old Masterton achieved his dream of playing in the National Hockey League. Almost a hometown hero, he even scored the first goal in franchise history.
On January 13th, 1968, the North Stars were playing the Oakland Seals. Early in the game Masterton led a solo rush into Oakland territory where he was greeted unceremoniously by Seals' defensemen Larry Cahan and Ron Harris. Both defenders nailed the smaller Masterton with very hard though clean body check. Masterton fell to the ice, hitting his helmetless head on the ice, instantly knocking him out cold.
Masterton never regained consciousness. For more than 30 hours doctors managed to keep him alive using respirators but the massive internal brain injuries were too immense. Early in the morning of January 15th, 1968, Masterton died.
Following the tragedy, the NHL governors in cooperation with the NHL Writers Association created the Bill Masterton Memorial trophy. It goes to a player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship and love of the game.
In the early years of this trophies existence, the silverware was given out to veteran players who got little recognition throughout their careers. In more recent years it is given out to players who have had to battle hardships due primarily to injury or illness and have successfully returned to the game of hockey.
Past winners include Mario Lemieux (cancer, back injuries), Tony Granato (emergency brain surgery, not hockey related), Tim Kerr (repeated shoulder and knee operations), Gord Kluzak (repeated knee operations) and Gary Roberts (serious spinal/neck injury).
Even Masterton's shocking death only slowly began to push forward the movement toward mandatory helmet use that finally was adopted in 1979 -- only for incoming players. The era of bareheaded players finally ended in 1997 with the retirement of the last grandfathered holdout, Craig MacTavish.
Masterton's retired uniform number 19 is among those on a banner that hangs from the ceiling at American Airlines Center, though Masterton never played for Dallas' Stars.
Also see: Toronto Star Investigation: What Really Killed Bill Masterton
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