Thursday, 9 July 2009

Masterton: Gone Too Soon

Hockey Blog In Canada continues its look at the major awards given out by the NHL today by examining the history and interesting facts surrounding the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The Masterton Memorial Trophy is given out annually to the NHL player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey". The definition is open to many interpretations of what "perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication" is, but, since 1991, the award has annually gone to a player who has overcome a major, career-threatening injury or defeated a disease that may have shortened his career. The major fact about this trophy is that a player can only win it once during his career, ensuring that there will be no repeat or multiple Masterton Memorial Trophy winners. So had did the NHL create this trophy? Who was Bill Masterton? Are there any interesting facts?

William "Bill" John Masterton was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on August 16, 1938. He took to hockey as a young boy on the prairies while attending Miles MacDonell Collegiate and eventually was good enough to join the St. Boniface Canadiens in 1956-57, part of the sprawling junior system that NHL teams had created before expansion to twelve teams. He wasn't signed by the Canadiens at that point, so he was off to play NCAA hockey with the University of Denver in 1957.

It was at the University of Denver that the young man became a hockey player. He won three NCAA Championships with Denver in 1958, 1960, and 1961. He earned All-American status in both 1960 and 1961, grabbing the attention of the Montreal Canadiens after scoring 24 goals and 56 assists in being named NCAA Tournament MVP and leading the Pioneers to the 1961 NCAA Championship. Montreal signed Masterton after he graduated from Denver, and he was assigned to the minor-leagues by the Canadiens.

His first assignment took him to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens for the 1961-62 season in the Eastern Professional Hockey League. In 65 games there, he recorded 31 goals and 35 assists, prompting him to be promoted to the AHL's Cleveland Barons for the 1962-63 season. In 72 games with the Barons, Masterton showed off his scoring talents by netting 27 goals and 55 assists. However, with the Montreal Canadiens loaded in talent, Masterton's efforts with the AHL squad wouldn't garner him another promotion. Rather than traveling the countryside by bus, Masterton retired from hockey, disappointed in the roadblock standing in his path to the NHL. He went back to the University of Denver where he obtained his Masters Degree in Finance by 1964.

This led Masterton to a job with the Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the 1963-64 season. He couldn't shake the hockey bug, however, and joined the St. Paul Steers of the USHL for the 1964-65 season. In his first season with the Steers, he scored 23 goals and added 23 assists. The 1965-66 season saw Masterton notch 27 goals and 40 assists in only 28 games - a torrid scoring pace. Masterton applied for American citizenship and was made an American citizen early into 1967. Being an American citizen with no international hockey experience allowed him the opportunity to join the US National Team. In his only season with Team USA, Masterton scored a respectable 10 goals and 29 assists in 23 games with the US Nationals, the USHL team run by Team USA.

With the announcement that the NHL was expanding from six to twelve teams for the 1967-68 season, there were hundreds of new jobs opening up for players. Masterton, having scored at a high rate in the minor-leagues since 1961, was on the radar for a few teams, especially the hometown Minnesota North Stars. He was signed by the North Stars at the age of 28 before the start of the 1967 season, and his dream of one day playing in the NHL had come true.

Unfortunately, Masterton's season, and ultimately his life, would be cut short due to an on-ice incident. In his 38th game of the season against the Oakland Seals at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota on January 13, 1968, Masterton suffered a horrific injury four minutes into the game that would cause his passing. While reports vary as to how the injury occurred, this account from the Dallas News gives a brief overview:

"He liked to carry the puck through the middle of the neutral zone, then veer left or right after crossing the opponent's blue line. He would then wait for his wingers and feed one as they came speeding into the offensive zone.

"Masterton made his typical play, but Seals defensemen Larry Cahan and Ron Harris read Masterton and tried to force him to give up the puck. Masterton fell backward, and the back of his bare head struck the ice."
Again, there is some debate as to how he was injured. Some have suggested that he was tripped. Others have suggested that he was pushed backwards by the two Seals defencemen. There is no known video of what may have occurred, so there is room for speculation.

Where there is no room for speculation is what happened to Masterton after his head struck the ice. As he lay upon the ice, he was bleeding from his mouth and nose. He was unconscious, and the trainers immediately called for the paramedics. He was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher, and taken to a nearby hospital. Doctors worked to fix the massive brain hemorrhage that had occurred in the pons - the area that relays sensory info between the cerebellum and cerebrum and controls respiration.

On January 15, 1968, the 29 year-old Masterton was pronounced dead by doctors. He had not regained consciousness in the 30 hours he had been in the hospital. It was only the second death related to an on-ice injury that the NHL had seen in its history after Howie Morenz succumbed to his injury nearly 50 years earlier. Because of his death, there was an intense effort by players and fans to make helmets mandatory in order to avoid a tragedy like Masterton's. By 1979, the NHL made helmets mandatory for all players who were entering the NHL from that point forward. His NHL career ended with four goals and eight assists to his name in 38 games.

Masterton's #19 was not worn by another Minnesota North Stars player after his passing, and it was officially retired by the team in 1987. Upon their move to Dallas, the North Stars franchise chose to take the banner with them, and it now hangs above the ice in the American Airlines Arena in Dallas.

In order to honour the fallen Masterton, the NHL created the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in order to honour his perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the game of hockey. It was first awarded after the 1967-68 season to Claude Provost of the Montreal Canadiens as he "embodied the definition of perseverance and dedication to hockey" over his 15-year career.

Here are some interesting facts about the winners of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. This award is voted upon by the members of the Professional Hockey Writer' Association (PHWA):
  • The Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers have had four winners each for the Masterton Trophy. The Los Angeles Kings are second with three winners.
  • Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke won the 1971-72 Masterton trophy for overcoming difficulties involved with diabetes. Clarke is a Type-1 diabetic.
  • Montreal's Henri Richard won in 1973-74 for his dedication to hockey after winning eleven Stanley Cups. Serge Savard also won for the same reason in 1978-79 after winning his eighth Stanley Cup.
  • Al MacAdam of the Minnesota North Stars won in 1979-80, the first and only player from the North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise to win the award. He received the honour after posting a career-high 42 goals and 51 assists.
  • Montreal's Doug Jarvis won the Masterton Trophy in 1986-87 after he eclipsed Gary Unger's record for consecutive games player by appearing in his 914th straight game.
  • There have been a number of players who have received the award after battling cancer. Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux defeated non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1992-93; Tampa Bay's John Cullen defeated non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1998-99; Montreal's Saku Koivu defeated non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2001-02; Boston's Phil Kessel returned to the NHL after battling testicular cancer in 2006-07; and Toronto's Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in 2007-08 and played all 82 games.
  • New Jersey's Ken Daneyko received his Masterton Trophy after overcoming an addiction to alcohol in 1999-2000.
Clearly, the NHL lost Bill Masterton far too soon. His legacy lives on, however, and the perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey that he showed is memorialized by this award. In 1997, Bill Masterton was named to the NCAA All-Time Team - an honour bestowed only on those who have accomplished greatness in the collegiate game.

There's a little history on who Mr. Masterton was, what happened in his unfortunate story, and the legacy he has left on the NHL. Rest eternally in peace, Mr. Masterton. Your accident in the game of hockey made the game safer, but you were gone far too soon.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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