Every year, the National Hockey League presents the Bill Masterton Trophy to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
It’s a prestigious award that is cherished by its recipients, who know the pain and sorrow behind its origin.
Fifty years ago — on Jan. 15, 1968 — Minnesota North Stars rookie center Bill Masterton died from a head injury suffered 30 hours earlier in a home game against the Oakland Seals. He was 29.
The Masterton tragedy came just as the league had expanded from six to 12 teams. Masterton had quit hockey after two seasons in the Canadiens’ minor-league system, but expansion gave him another chance. He scored the first goal in North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise history. He also took some hits along the way in a league in which helmets were 11 years away from becoming mandatory. It also was 40 years before concussion protocols were put in place by the league.
“My mother always said he had been dealing with some headaches, and a couple of the other players said he looked very flushed,’’ Scott Masterton, the player’s 53-year-old son, said from Blaine, Minnesota.
If concussions were to blame, no one was saying. “I got a headache, take aspirins, get back on the rink,’’ Scott Masterton surmised.
Masterton was playing in his 38th game when the tragedy occurred. Teammate Wayne Connelly painfully remembered the sequence as Masterton crossed the blue line and passed the puck to a teammate.
“I had just passed him the puck,’’ Connelly, 78, said from Lake Kenogami in Northern Ontario. Two Seals defensemen (Larry Cahan and Ron Harris) converged and checked Masterton. He fell backward, hitting the back of his head on the ice.
“At the time, to me, it didn’t look that bad,’’ Connelly said. “There was no blood. I didn’t think it was a severe hit. But it was. He was starting to swallow his tongue. The trainer was out there trying to help, but there was nothing that we could do. Still, he didn’t die right there, so we thought everything was going to be OK.
“Then in the game [after Masterton’s death], guys are crying standing at the blue line during the anthem. It was awful. He should have had a helmet on. I played 17 years. You get banged up, things like that, but not enough that you think someone’s going to die ’cause you’re being checked.”
The players who made the check on Masterton were grief- stricken. Cahan, who played seven seasons with the Rangers, died at 58 in 1992. Harris, 75, who ended his career with four seasons as a Blueshirt, gave only one known interview on the subject, in 2003 to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, saying: “It bothers you the rest of your life. 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 in the back of my mind.”
Harris, who is believed to live in Canada, could not be reached.
Scott Masterton, who was 3 when his father died, said his family never had any animosity toward the two defensemen.
“I know that it haunted those guys for a lot of years,’’ Masterton said. “Heartbreaking. You’re playing a rough, physical game and I just found that to be terribly sad that it haunted [Harris] for so long.’’
The medical examiner reportedly tied Masterton’s death to the on-ice incident, ruling cerebral edema as the cause of death. But in a 2011 investigation by the Toronto Star, a neurosurgeon concluded that the death resulted from second-impact syndrome, pointing to existing damage before the injury that felled Masterton.
“The coroner found evidence of a previous injury on the left side of Masterton’s skull on the temporal region of the brain,’’ Dr. Charles Tator, 81, director of the Canadian Concussion Center at Toronto Western Hospital, said Wednesday. “As far as one can be certain, poring over records that are 50 years old, I would say that is my conclusion.”
Dr. Jesse Corry, a specialist in neurocritical care in St. Paul, Minnesota, concurred with Tator’s findings, espn.com reported in 2016.
A spokeswoman for Hennepin County — which includes Minneapolis — said the medical examiner’s office “will not be looking at another cause of death.’’
If Masterton was wearing a helmet, could the tragedy have been averted?
“The answer is no,’’ Tator said. “It doesn’t appear to protect against this type of injury. We have not been smart enough as a society to invent a helmet that prevents concussions. Sidney Crosby has gotten all of his concussions wearing a helmet. So have all of the U.S. football players who have been shown to have CTE. The helmet does protect against other types of brain injury. The helmet will protect against a skull fracture, it will protect against blood clots in the brain. It will protect against bruising of the brain, but it doesn’t protect against concussions.”
Few players wore helmets even immediately after Masterton’s death.
“People say to me, you played a thousand games and you can still say your name and you don’t mumble,’’ said former NHL player Walt McKechnie, who lives near Toronto. “If you touched me in the head, you have to fight somebody on my team, or if one of our guys touches you in the head, one of your teammates would stand up for you. We all had tremendous deep sorrow for his family, but we know every time we went out on the ice what could happen.’’
Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine won the Masterton Trophy in 1994-95 with Buffalo. The former Islanders and Rangers player had his career ended at 32 after multiple concussions.
LaFontaine always wore a helmet but said the number of concussions he suffered reached “double digits. [Helmets] won’t stop a concussion. If you shake an egg, the yolk is still going to hit against the shell because of the force. The helmet was made initially to stop skull fractures. You’re not going to totally stop the concussions, but I do believe you can start to minimize what would happen obviously not having that helmet on.’’
Lou Nanne was a vice president of the Players Association when the league went to mandatory helmets in 1979. “You were seeing more head injuries, from pucks and some concussions, and I think the fact that kids were starting to wear [helmets] in juniors and then they come up to the NHL and have to take it off because it looks bad. The NHL didn’t want to get into a situation where it looked like they were keeping helmets out and something drastic happened.”
Scott Masterton said: “We as a family always wondered if he had the helmet on would he have survived. The answer to that is maybe yes, maybe no. The doctor said that it probably wouldn’t have saved him then. However, it may have saved him from some of the previous trauma, so if he had not had that previous brain trauma, that hit would not have been fatal.
“His accident maybe ended up saving some lives in the future. It’s certainly possible. That’s the only thing that I could find, that there’s a certain positive spin that it wasn’t meaningless, [even though] it did take 10 years before helmets were a normal thing.’’
Masterton was a U.S. super middleweight kickboxing champion in the 1990s. His career ended when he broke his leg in the ring on the 25th anniversary of his father’s death in 1993. He has a couple of memories of his father, saying, “I remember before his hockey practice we would sit down and eat graham crackers and honey. He said that was the energy food. And I remember him teaching me how to skate. I don’t remember the sound of his voice. I’d like to be able to hear the sound of his voice. I don’t know if anything exists out there. I’d love to hear it.”
Four other athletes who died shortly after being stricken during a game:
1920 Cleveland Indians
The star shortstop was hit in the head by a fastball thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays. He fell to his knees, bleeding, but began walking toward the Indians’ clubhouse under his own power before collapsing near second base. He died 12 hours later at NYC’s St. Lawrence Hospital.
1960 New York Titans
The guard suffered a broken neck during an AFL game against the Oilers on Oct. 9 and died a few hours later in a Houston hospital.
1971 Detroit Lions
The wide receiver collapsed on the field after suffering a fatal heart attack in the final minutes of an Oct. 24 game against the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium.
1990 Loyola Marymount
The All-American collapsed during a basketball game against Portland on March 4 and was pronounced dead at a Los Angeles hospital a few hours later. The cause of death was a heart muscle disorder.