June 6, 2020

Why a major NHL award

is named after ex-DU

Pioneer Bill Masterton

Masterton.jpg MastertonTrophy.jpg

The Colorado chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association -- an organization I served for many years as a chapter chair and a vice president -- announced Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves is its nomination for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for "this" season. 


The award is supposed to go to the player who best exemplifies "perseverence, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."


Each PHWA chapter nominates one player for an organization-wide vote.


One Colorado player has won the award.


(Final Jeopardy theme.)


Give up?


It was Colorado Rockies goaltender Glenn "Chico" Resch in 1981-82, the team's final season in Denver before its sale and move to New Jersey.      


My take on the Masterton always has been it could be -- or even should be -- a career body of work award, and along those lines advocated Jarome Iginla late in his career with the Avalanche.


Over the years, though, it morphed into a means of honoring the overcoming of injury or personal tragedy. No way am I criticizing that, and many winners have had heart-wrenching stories. I just viewed it differently.


So who was Bill Masterton? It's usually pointed out that the Winnipeg native had played for the Minnesota North Stars, but only rarely that he also had been a University of Denver Pioneer. In fact. he was the star of the DU teams that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1960 and '61. 


In the early hours of January 15, 1968, the North Stars center died at a suburban Minneapolis hospital of a severe brain injury after he was checked and fell backwards, and his head hit the ice in a January 13 game against the Oakland Seals.


He was only 29.


After his DU career, he played in the Canadiens' system. He then retired from pro hockey came back to DU to get his master's degree in finance. While living in Minneapolis and working for Honeywell as a contracts administrator, he regained his amateur status to play several seasons of senior hockey and -- as a naturalized U.S. citizen -- also serve as the captain of the U.S. national team. He was the first player the North Stars signed. 


Looking back at the contemporary newspaper accounts of his injury and death, it's striking how respected he was, and how he was one of the prime examples of terrific players who couldn't break through in the six-team era and got a chance after the expansion from six to 12 teams for 1967-68.    


"Billy was fulfilling a life-long dream,"  North Stars general manager Wren Blair said that week. "He did not need the National Hockey League. It was just something he wanted to do."


The death brought renewed calls to make helmets mandatory in the NHL, including from players association head Alan Eagleson.


In conjunction with the NHL All-Star Game in Toronto, the day after Masterton's death, league president Clarence Campbell was asked about it.


"It's an optional thing," Campbell said. "There are some players who just won't wear them."


In fact, Masterton wore a helmet in his collegiate career at DU, because they were mandatory in NCAA hockey, then went without as a pro.   


Shockingly, Masterton's family was in line to get only $50,000 from the NHL's life insurance program, $10,000 from the league's accident insurance, $25,000 from Minnesota Workman's Compensation and roughly $15,000 from the remainder of his contract, which the North Stars said they would honor.


The NHL's benefit of $10,000 in accident insurance was scheduled to be increased to a $100,000 double indemnity payment on February 1 -- two weeks after his death.


"It is sad to think that this wasn't in effect the day before yesterday," Campbell said. "But we've done this as expeditiously as possible."  


Campbell shot down the idea that the league could play a benefit game to raise money for the family.


"I think a benefit game is asking the public to pay for a normal hazard in our business," Campbell, a true dinosaur, said. "It is our own responsibility to pay indemnification whenever it is necessary. You can't compensate for a man's death no matter what you do. This is just a built-in hazard of our business."


Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jack Riley pointed out an irony at the All-Star game festivities.


"The first All-Star game in 1934 in Toronto was held for a man, Ace Bailey, who almost lost his life because of a severe head injury," Riley said


Campbell wasn't swayed by that.


Later, others involved with the North Stars speculated and cited anecdotal evidence he had had brain hemorrhage issues before that fateful game, but had played through them. That's what you did in those days. And not just in hockey. The Toronto Star first laid out those details in 2011. 


After that season, Claude Provost of the Canadiens was named the first Masterton Trophy winner.  


DU's MVP award also is named after Masterton.  


The Avalanche nominee for the NHL award this season, Graves, is 25 and has come into his own after spending three seasons and part of a fourth in the American Hockey League. The Avalache acquired him from the Rangers for Chris Bigras in February 2018. That was more of a what-the-hell exchange of players perceived to be disappointments than anything else, and Graves took advantage of the fresh start. He will finish the regular season with 9 goals and 17 assists for 26, with a plus-40 that's the best in the league.  

Whenever the Avalanche again is able to play home games, we'll be reminded: Bill Masterton once played six miles away.



As Pioneers: Defensemen George Konik and Marty

Howe with Bill Masterton and the WCHA championship

trophy, the MacNaughton Cup.