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Bill Masterton

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Position  Centre
Playing career  1961–1968
Weight  84 kg
Shot  Right
Name  Bill Masterton
Career start  1967

Played for  Minnesota North Stars
Role  Ice hockey player
Career end  1968
National team  United States
Height  1.83 m
Education  University of Denver
Bill Masterton 2015 Masterton Nominees
Born  August 13, 1938 Winnipeg, MB, CAN (1938-08-13)
Died  January 15, 1968, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

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William John Masterton (August 13, 1938 – January 15, 1968) was a Canadian–American professional ice hockey centre who played in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Minnesota North Stars in 1967–68. He is the only player in NHL history to die as a direct result of injuries suffered during a game, the result of massive head injuries suffered following a hit during a January 13, 1968, contest against the Oakland Seals.


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A college standout with the Denver Pioneers, Masterton was a member of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship teams in 1960 and 1961, was twice an NCAA All-Star and was the most valuable player of the 1961 NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Tournament. He briefly played in the Montreal Canadiens organization before settling in Minnesota where he played senior hockey. The NHL's 1967 expansion offered an opportunity to play for the newly founded North Stars, for whom he scored the first goal in the franchise's history.

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Masterton's death sparked a long-running debate in hockey about the merits of wearing helmets, as few NHL players did so in that time. Despite several efforts to mandate their use, it was 11 years before the NHL made them compulsory for all new players beginning in the 1979–80 season. In his memory, the NHL created the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy which it has awarded since 1968 to a player who demonstrates perseverance and dedication to hockey. The North Stars retired his jersey number 19, an honor that followed the franchise when it later relocated to Dallas, Texas.

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Playing career

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A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Masterton played two seasons of junior hockey with the St. Boniface Canadiens in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL). He averaged a goal per game and finished with 49 points in 22 games in 1955–56 as the Canadiens won the Turnbull Cup. He added eight points in six games during the Memorial Cup playdowns, however St. Boniface failed to reach the national championship final. Following a second season in which he recorded 53 points in 30 games, Masterton chose to attend the University of Denver where he was offered a scholarship to play with the Denver Pioneers hockey program.

Masterton played three seasons in Denver between 1958 and 1961, appearing in a total of 89 games, scoring 66 goals and 196 points in that time. At the time of his graduation, he was the Pioneers' all-time leading point scorer, a record he held for 25 years. He was a two-time NCAA All-American and was twice named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) All-Star team, earning both awards in 1960 and 1961. Masterton led the WCHA in scoring in 1959–60 with 44 points in conference play, and led Denver to the 1960 NCAA national championship. Masterton served as team captain for 1960–61, and was named the most valuable player of the 1961 national championship as he led Denver to a second consecutive title. The Pioneers finished the season with a 30–1–1 record and were hailed as "the greatest hockey team to ever represent an American college or university."

Turning to professional hockey after graduating with an engineering degree, Masterton signed a contract with the Montreal Canadiens in 1961. Led by Jean Béliveau and Henri Richard, the Canadiens were extremely deep at center, so Masterton was assigned to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League. He had 31 goals and 65 points for Hull-Ottawa, placing him in the top ten in both categories. Masterton was promoted to the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League (AHL) for the 1962–63 season, where he led the team with 82 points. He finished as the runner up to Doug Robinson for the Dudley "Red" Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL's top rookie.

Faced with little opportunity to make the Montreal roster, Masterton left the professional game to complete his master's degree at the University of Denver. He settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he took a job in contracts administration. He joined the Honeywell Corporation where he worked on the Apollo program. He and his wife Carol adopted two children, Scott and Sally.

After taking a year off hockey in 1964, Masterton regained his amateur status so that he could play senior hockey in the United States Hockey League. He played two seasons with the St. Paul Steers between 1964 and 1966. Masterton became a naturalized American citizen, allowing him to join the United States National Team in 1966–67. He served as captain on that team and was considered its most valuable player.

Minnesota North Stars

The NHL expanded in 1967, doubling from 6 teams to 12. Among the new entries was the Minnesota North Stars. The new team's coach and general manager, Wren Blair, had scouted Masterton while he played with the US Nationals and purchased his NHL playing rights from the Canadiens. Masterton was the first player to sign with Minnesota, agreeing to a two-year contract. He said prior to the start of the 1967–68 season that being able to play in Minnesota was key as he would have been unlikely to consider an offer with any other team.

At the age of 29, Masterton made his NHL debut in the North Stars' inaugural game, played October 11, 1967, against the St. Louis Blues. In that game, a 2–2 tie, Masterton scored the first goal in Minnesota franchise history. His wife Carol later recalled that it was a "dream come true" for her husband: "He always wanted a shot at the NHL, and expansion was a wonderful thing for him and guys like him." By mid-season, Masterton had scored 4 goals and 12 points in 38 games.


Masterton suffered a severe internal brain injury during the first period of Minnesota's January 13, 1968, game against the Oakland Seals at the Met Center. He carried the puck up the ice at full speed, passing it off as two Seals defenders, Larry Cahan and Ron Harris, converged on him. Masterton was knocked backward in the resulting collision and landed on his head. Like most players of his era, he wasn't wearing a helmet. Referee Wally Harris compared the hit to an explosion, adding "he was checked hard, but I'm sure it wasn't a dirty play." The force of the impact caused Masterton to bleed from his nose, ears and mouth. The impact of the hit caused him to lose consciousness before he hit the ice; according to some accounts, he briefly came to and muttered, "Never again, never again" before passing back out. He received treatment on the ice and in the dressing room before being rushed to Fairview-Southdale Hospital.

Carol, who was watching the game from the stands, and Masterton's parents, who were listening to the game from their home in Winnipeg, rushed to his bed side at the hospital. He was attended to by two neurosurgeons and three other doctors. They soon concluded that the injury was too severe for surgery to be a viable option. Some 30 hours after his fall, on January 15, Masterton died without ever regaining consciousness. His parents, brother, wife and two children were at his side. Masterton's Minnesota teammates, who were playing a game in Boston on the 14th, were informed that he had been removed from life support in the dressing room in what was ultimately a 9–2 loss to the Bruins. He is the only player in NHL history to die as a direct result of an injury suffered on the ice. To date, he is the last player to die as a direct result of an in-game injury in one of the major North American professional sports.

Ron Harris was haunted for many years by his role in Masterton's death: "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." But Masterton's family held no animosity towards the players involved or the game. Carol referred to the incident as a fluke, saying that it could have happened to anyone.


Few NHL players wore helmets in 1968, and Masterton's death sparked an immediate debate on whether their use should be compulsory. Legislators in New York considered a law to make their use mandatory, and the NHL voted on and rejected a rule requiring players wear helmets three times by 1971.

Some players began to wear helmets following Masterton's death, but adoption was slow. Three years later, only six Minnesota players wore them, the most of any of the NHL's teams. The "macho" attitude of the game, including fear of being called a coward, was an often cited reason for reluctance. It was 11 years before the NHL finally mandated the use of helmets by all players entering the league beginning in the 1979–80 season.

A later analysis by the Toronto Star in 2011 suggested that the "macho" attitude of the NHL in that era, as well as his aggressive playing style, played a significant role in Masterton's death. Coach Wren Blair believed that Masterton was playing despite a pre-existing brain hemorrhage, and was concerned enough that he wanted to have Masterton checked out by a doctor. However, Masterton brushed it off. Longtime NHL coach John Muckler, who was then the coach of the Stars' second-tier farm team, the Memphis South Stars, believed that Masterton may have suffered a brain injury as early as training camp. During the season, several players and coaches recalled seeing Masterton black out during rushes in practice. Goaltender Cesare Maniago recalled that the night before the fatal hit, Masterton had been complaining of severe migraines that he'd had for over a week. They felt it caused what was otherwise viewed as a routine, albeit hard, bodycheck to turn fatal. Toronto neurosurgeon and concussion expert Charles Tator reviewed Masterton's autopsy and opined that Masterton had suffered second-impact syndrome, which occurs when a person suffers a second concussion on top of an earlier, untreated concussion. When this happens, it can cause rapid and often fatal brain swelling.

Several awards were named in Masterton's memory. The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy was created in 1968 under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and is presented annually to the "National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey". The University of Denver Pioneers hockey team named its most valuable player award after him, and his Winnipeg high school, Miles MacDonnell Collegiate, presents a scholarship in his name. High schools in Bloomington, where the North Stars played their games, also award scholarships in Masterton's name. The Minnesota North Stars pulled his jersey number 19 out of circulation following his death and formally retired it in 1987. That honor followed the franchise when it relocated south to become the Dallas Stars.

Masterton was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, and named to the NCAA's 50th anniversary team in 1997.


Bill Masterton Wikipedia