Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 1968: Death on the ice

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - The January 13 game was four minutes old when Bill Masterton skated into the attacking zone. After being penned in by the defence, Masterton flipped a pass over to teammate Wayne Connelly. Soon after passing, Masterton got tangled up with two defenders and fell, hitting his head on the ice.

Play stopped immediately as players and officials saw the pool of blood under Masterton's head. A teammate who had rushed to tend to him heard him mumble "never again, never again." He was taken off the ice on a stretcher, still bleeding, and taken to the hospital.

Masterton had starred at the University of Denver but had trouble getting his professional hockey career going. He retired from the game to take a job at Honeywell in Minneapolis, only to return when the NHL rewarded a franchise to Minnesota. At the age of 29, Masterton had scored four goals in 38 games in the 1967-68 season, including the first goal in North Stars franchise history.

Now, though, he was tragically going to be remembered for something else. When Masterton was taken to the hospital, the doctors saw that the damage was so extensive that they could not perform surgery. Masterton never regained consciousness after his injury and died two days later. He was the first NHL player to die as a result of an on-ice injury.

Considering the nature of the sport, many people saw it as a minor miracle that nobody had been killed during a game before Masterton. After all, players wore blades on their feet while shooting a hard rubber disk up to 100 miles an hour, all while checking and fighting each other. Oh, and nobody wore helmets back then.

That's where Masterton's death, however tragic, did some good. At the time, the NHL was the only hockey league at any level where players didn't wear helmets, even though there had been calls for years to change that. While it's possible Masterton's injury was severe enough that a helmet wouldn't have saved him, it's also possible that it would have. Players around the league started to realize this; faced with their own mortality, they started to see that the pros of wearing a helmet - i.e., they can save your life - outweighed the cons - i.e., they were heavy, cumbersome, sweaty, and distracting.

Things moved slow, though, and helmets weren't mandated in the NHL until 1979. Still, players who had played without one before 1979 were allowed to remain helmetless. It took until 1997, with the retirement of Craig McTavish, until every player in the NHL wore a helmet.

Masterton's legacy lives on in both the Stars franchise and the NHL. The North Stars never issued his number 19 again, retiring it officially in 1987. The NHL established the Bill Masterton Trophy, given to a player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey." The award is often given to players who have returned from career- or life-threatening injuries or illnesses.

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