Nominees for the Bill Masterton trophy are being announced by NHL clubs one division at a time this week. The Canadiens niminee will be the well deserving Patrice Brisebois.
Many hockey fans have doubtlessly heard the name Bill Masterton from the annual trophy awarded in his honour at season's end, but few likely know the courageous player's story. Masterton has a tie in to Montreal Canadiens history, as he was once a prospect in the organization during the 1960's.
The Canadiens spotted Masterton at 17, and promptly signed the offensive star to C-Form and placed him on their St. Boniface Canadiens affiliate in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Through junior hockey, the college ranks, and minor pro, Masterton continuously thrived, until his shot at the pros finally came with NHL expansion in 1967-68.
Prior to the NHL doubling in size, Masterton played with two Canadiens affiliates, but was burried in an organization deep at the center position. As the Canadiens middle was clogged with the likes of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and other, Masterton left the game temporarily, before returning when expansion opened a window to the NHL.
One must often wonder how a simple twist of fate can affect a life. A lucky break here or there, and Masterton name might instead be on the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens rather than on a trophy bearing his name and honouring his perseverence.
The story of who Masterton was is often singularly associated with his tragic passing as the result of an on ice incident, but Masterton was much more defined by who he was, and the dedication he displayed towards making it to the NHL after years of hard work.
Masterton was born August 16, 1938 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and growing up in hockey surroundings, had a natural ability for scoring goals. He was often among the league leaders in that category.
At 17 he signed on with the St. Boniface Canadiens and in 22 games responded with 23 goals and 49 points in 1955-56. Masterton and the Canadiens played in the Memorial Cup playoffs, where he tallied eight points in six games.
In the fall of 1957, Masterton enrolled at the University of Denver, where he played while earning a degree. In four seasons with the school team, he was one a top offensive weapon with the club, averaging more than two points per game in each of his last three seasons. Masterton helped the school to win an impressive three NCAA national titles, in 1958, 1960 and 1961 - in his senior year. Following his final campaign, he was named the MVP of the entire NCAA tournament.
Following graduation, Masterton hoped to graduate to professional hockey. With just six teams in the NHL, cracking a team's lineup, especially the Canadiens who owned his rights, was next to impossible. In 1961-62 Masterton played in the Montreal Canadiens organization, joining the Hull - Ottawa Canadiens of the EPHL. He kept up his scoring ways, tallying 31-35-66 totals in 66 games. Among some of Masterton's more notable teammates with Hull - Ottawa included future NHLers Andre Boudrias, Jacques Laperriere, Claude Larose, Willie O'Ree, Keith McCreary, Jim Roberts, Barclay Plager, Terry Harper, Dallas Smith and goalies Cesare Maniago and Ernie Wakely.
Masterton's strong performance with Hull - Ottawa earned him a promotion within the organization, and he moved onto the AHL's Cleveland Barons. In 72 games with Cleveland, Masterton racked up an impressive 82 points, second best on the club.
The Canadiens failed to find room to promote masterton from the club, but three Barons - John Ferguson, Jimmy Roberts, and Terry Gray - made the leap to Montreal the following season.
Feeling as he had little future in hockey at this point, Masterton retired from the game in 1963-64. He joined up with Honeywell Civil and Military Avionics and worked on the Apollo Moon project.
He returned to hockey one season later in 1964-65, playing two campaigns with the St. Paul Steers of the USHL, followed by one year with the U.S. National Team. In the summer of 1967, his NHL dreams gained a lift when the Canadiens traded his rights to the Minnesota North Stars on June 14.
The expansion North Stars, after a tryout in which he surprisingly made the team, signed him to a free agent contract. It was the thrill of a lifetime for Masterton, who had for so long dreamed about one day making it to the best hockey league in the world.
"He told me they had just given him the offer," said his brother Bob Masterton. "So we kind of joked and he said it was something he always wanted to do and it always beat working."
Masterton's impact was immediate. He scored the first goal in North Stars history.
During a North Stars game against the Oakland Seals on January 13, 1968, Masterton fell awkwardly to the ice, hitting his head after being checked. Taken into the boards by the Seals Larry Cahan and Ron Harris, he fell backwards onto the ice, with the force of the back of his head hitting this ice causing immediate bleeding.
"He threw a pass over to me and as I was receiving the pass I was looking over towards them and you could see that he got hit," recalled linemate Wayne Connolly. "You looked at Bill on the ice and you could see that it was big trouble."
"When he fell, and his head hit the ice, you could actually hear it from the bench," added daughter Sally Masterton. "And the team doctor said he could hear the pop sound and he knew right away that there was something wrong."
Masterton was rushed from the Met Center to Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, but the prognosis was bleak. The injuries were seriously and he sustained much damage to his brain. Due to complications, doctors were prevented from doing surgery.
"We called in and they said there wasn't much hope," said Bob Masterton. "That was pretty hard to take. I would go in and sit with him and all we did was pray."
Two days later, Masterton passed away. He was the first player in 40 years to die as a result of an on ice incident in the NHL.
"As great as he was on the ice, he was 10 times better off the ice," said Connolly. "Every player just loved being around Bill. He was quiet, yet he was a lot of fun to be around. I was happy to say he was my friend."
"It was a tragedy, and the hardest thing I've ever gone through for sure," said former teammate J.P. Parise.
Cahan, who played three more NHL seasons after the incident, passed away in 1992. Harris, had long declined to discuss the events leading up to the hit. He has only ever given one quote regarding the tragedy.
"It bothers you the rest of your life," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It wasn't dirty and it wasn't meant to happen that way. Still, it's very hard because I made the play. It's always on the back of my mind."
"It was not a dirty hit," said Connolly. "I played with Ron, and (he was) not a dirty player. There was nothing cheap.it was just part of the game."
"If he gets a chance to see this, I'd say I've never held any blame towards anybody," said Masterton's son Scott. "I don't hold any grudge or anything. He should let it go, if he can."
Masterton's death resulted in more intense lobbying for players to wear helmets, which were uncommon in professional hockey at that time. Masterton, like most players of that era, was not wearing a helmet at the time of the hit.
"It wasn't the thing to do," explained Connolly. "Management didn't care for players to put on helmets. It's unfortunate, it may have saved Bill's life and that's the part for the family that we wished that he would have been."
No other North Star ever wore his No. 19, and it was officially retired in 1987, six years before the North Stars left Minnesota. The number remains retired by the Dallas Stars organization, even though he never played a single game for the re-located team, Masterton's number proudly hangs from the rafters of American Airlines Center.
Since 1968, the memory of Masterton's life lives on in the trophy named for him. It is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies "dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance to the game" - qualities apparent in every day of Masterton's life.
"A guy that gives up his life for the game, for the one last shot - that's pretty much perseverance in my mind," said Scott Masterton.
The award is voted upon by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Bobby Clarke, Serge Savard, Mario Lemieux, Cam Neely and Saku Koivu are just a few of the big names that have been honoured with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in past years.
Content and additional information for this story on Masterton can be found at these four links. The first, a report by Mike Heika, hockey beat writer for The Dallas Morning News, is an essential read that includes a video clip on Masterton.