Remembering Minnesota's Bill Masterton

TSN.ca Staff
1/16/2008 10:41:04 PM
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It's not as recognizable as the Hart or Conn Smythe Trophy, but the Bill Masterton Trophy is a great recognition in hockey nonetheless.

It's awarded to the player who best exemplifies perseverance and dedication to the game and it's named for a man who, 40 years ago this week, became the lone name in the most tragic statistical category of them all.

This is Bill Masterton's story.

"As great as he was on the ice, he was 10 times better off the ice," said former teammate Wayne 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."

A Winnipeg native, Masterton earned a degree from the University of Denver and won consecutive NCAA championships. He signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 1961, but the team's depth at centre left him on the outside looking in.

When no one else signed him, Masterton joined up with Honeywell civil and military avionics and worked on the Apollo Moon project until the expansion Minnesota North Stars came calling.

"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.

But tragedy struck on Jan. 13, 1968 - the first season of the new 12-team National Hockey League. In a game against the Oakland Seals, Masterton was hit by Oakland's Larry Cahan and Ron Harris.

"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 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.

"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, Bill Masterton died at age 29. He is the only NHL player to die from injuries suffered in an NHL game.

"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, who declined to discuss it for this story, has given only one interview on the subject.

"It bothers you the rest of your life," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2003. "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."

If there is any solace for Harris, it's the fact that no one has bode any ill will towards him now.

"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, 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," added Bob Masterton.

Since 1968, his memory has lived on in the Masterton Trophy. It is awarded for dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance to the game - qualities described every day in Bill 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 North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, and even though he never played a single game for the re-located team, Masterton's retired No. 19 hangs proudly from the rafters of American Airlines Center.

Written with files from NHL on TSN feature producer Jeremy McElhanney. 

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