NHL player's death, 40 years ago today, changed hockey

DALLAS -- The death of Bill Masterton 40 years ago today was tragic, unnecessary and foolish. And it changed hockey forever. Such is the legacy of the only man who died because of injuries caused in an NHL game. Masterton died in a Minneapolis ho...

DALLAS -- The death of Bill Masterton 40 years ago today was tragic, unnecessary and foolish. And it changed hockey forever.

Such is the legacy of the only man who died because of injuries caused in an NHL game.

Masterton died in a Minneapolis hospital shortly after midnight on Jan. 15, 1968, a little more than one day after the 29-year-old rookie center for the Minnesota North Stars fell to the ice during the first period of a game against the Oakland Seals and suffered significant damage to his brain stem. Masterton, like virtually every other player in the NHL at the time, wasn't wearing a helmet.

He'd worn one at every other level of the sport -- growing up in Manitoba; at the University of Denver, where he starred in the early 1960s; playing for the U.S. national team after he gained dual citizenship; and in the minors before he retired from hockey in 1967 to settle near the Twin Cities.

An 11th-hour NHL career became possible when the league doubled from six teams to 12 that season, including a team in Minnesota. But helmets in that NHL were considered a sign of weakness.


Masterton had played in only 38 games with the North Stars and was barely known by the league that now honors him. His memory lives on in an annual NHL award, a Stars team award and in the knowledge for players that it's never a bad idea to be safe.

Even Masterton's shocking death only slowly began to push forward the movement toward mandatory helmet use that finally was adopted in 1979 -- only for incoming players. The era of bareheaded players finally ended in 1997 with the retirement of the last grandfathered holdout, Craig MacTavish.

"It's ridiculous that we thought that way back then, but we did," Ray Cullen, one of Masterton's good friends on the 1967-68 North Stars, said recently from London, Ontario. "It took Bill dying for all of us to start thinking, 'What are we doing?' "

Masterton's retired uniform number 19 is among those on a banner that hangs from the ceiling at American Airlines Center, though Masterton never played for Dallas' Stars.

Mike Modano, who played four seasons in Minnesota, fears most Dallas fans -- and probably some Stars players -- don't know why Masterton's number is retired or why the NHL has a Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

"If people knew his story, I think they would better understand what he meant to the organization and to the sport," Modano said.

Lou Nanne, a longtime figure in Minnesota hockey, talked Masterton into playing for the U.S. national team.

"People in the NHL didn't get to see what Bill could do," Nanne said, "but he was a special player."


Ahead of his time

Masterton was, in some ways, ahead of his time. College players weren't vogue in the NHL of the early '60s, when he led the Denver Pioneers to NCAA championships in 1960 and '61.

His performance in 1961 was the stuff of legends. He tallied 80 points in 32 games -- an NCAA record then -- and led the way to a 12-2 victory in the national final over St. Lawrence for the biggest blowout in title game history. In 1997, Masterton was one of 21 players named to the NCAA's 50th anniversary team.

After graduation, Masterton played in the minors for a few years and also obtained a master's degree from Denver. That led to a job with Honeywell in Minneapolis, and Masterton was on the fast track in business.

"There weren't a lot of guys who were educated in hockey, but Billy was a smart man," Cullen said. "It got to the point where he didn't need to play hockey."

But Masterton still wanted to play, so he rode it out for two years with St. Paul of the USHL and spent a year on the U.S. national team.

Many believed Masterton, at age 28, was done with hockey. But the NHL doubled in size in 1967, and that was too good of a deal to pass up.

"We were all trying to catch on, and it was really hard to do back then," said Cesare Maniago, a fringe NHL goalie in the early '60s who then played regularly for nine seasons with the North Stars. "When they doubled the amount of teams, doubled the amount of jobs, you had a lot of guys who got interested again."


And Masterton, living in the Twin Cities when the North Stars were founded, was front and center. On opening night in St. Louis, he scored the first goal in franchise history.

"It was the perfect setup for him," Nanne said.

'Never again'

There's believed to be no existing video of the Minnesota-Oakland game played on Saturday night, Jan. 13, 1968, at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., and there are differing accounts of the events that involved Masterton.

He liked to carry the puck through the middle of the neutral zone, then veer left or right after crossing the opponent's blue line. He would then wait for his wingers and feed one as they came speeding into the offensive zone.

Masterton made his typical play, but Seals defensemen Larry Cahan and Ron Harris read Masterton and tried to force him to give up the puck. Masterton fell backward, and the back of his bare head struck the ice.

"Cahan was a big barrel-chested defenseman, and he just stood Bill up and ran into him with his chest," said Maniago, in net at the other end of the rink. "It was a clean hit, and Bill just went over backward. You see the hit and you see him fall, and you realize he might be hurt."

Al Shaver, the Hall of Fame announcer who called all North Stars games, said he felt Masterton's head might have landed on someone's skate. Shaver said one fan insisted for years that she saw blood coming from Masterton's head before he hit the ice.


Maniago said Masterton had complained of headaches a week earlier following a hard hit. Still another report stated Masterton was awake when teammates first rushed to him and that he said, "Never again. Never again," before he lost consciousness.

Those words could be construed as Masterton second-guessing either his return to hockey or his decision not to wear a helmet.

The NHL's macho code at the time was only beginning to break down when it came to goalie masks, first introduced by Jacques Plante in 1959. Maniago said he was discouraged even in 1967-68 from wearing one.

"After Bill died, I said to heck with it," Maniago said. "I finally was able to put a mask on."

The North Stars traveled late that Saturday night to Boston for a game on Sunday. They took the better part of the day to get there and then played that night.

North Stars officials were informed of Masterton's passing in the wee hours of Monday, Jan. 15, a few hours after he died.

The 1968 NHL All-Star game was played one day after Masterton's death despite urging from North Stars personnel to at least postpone the game. The topic of helmets was paramount among the players at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.

Chicago's Stan Mikita, the league's reigning MVP, began wearing a helmet for good soon after the Masterton tragedy. More players followed suit.


"Management was definitely against it," Mikita said of the general practice. "If you put on a helmet and your game dipped the littlest bit, then management would be telling you it was the helmet's fault."

Mikita repeated as MVP in 1967-68.

Masterton's legacy

Scott Masterton has fuzzy visions of his father, who died when he was only 4 years old. There are memories of eating graham crackers and honey or freezing the backyard patio to turn it into a rink, but he actually has gotten to know his father best through the stories that he has been told over the years.

"What has been great for me is that my mom was able to maintain contact with some of the players or people in management with the North Stars, and we were invited to a lot of team functions," Scott said in an interview last summer in Bloomington. "Everywhere you went, people would have great stories to tell about Dad."

Scott and his younger sister, Sally, grew up in the Twin Cities area and are rearing their children there. They said the references to their father are fading, especially since the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993. But they both work hard to maintain his memory.

The Professional Hockey Writers Association began distributing an award in his name in 1968, and it is seen as one of the most revered in the sport. It's given annually to the player who best exemplifies the characteristics of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

"I really like what the award is based on because I think that is what my dad stood for," Scott said. "There's a lot of pride in that."

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