After the exciting promise of 1967, Americans would witness multiple tragedies in 1968. That season in the hockey world, the NHL doubled its franchises then lost one expansion team’s most promising player in the only on-ice-injury-related death in NHL history. In an age in which few players wore helmets, on January 13, 1968, 29-year-old Bill Masterton of the brand new Minnesota North Stars hit his head on the ice and never regained consciousness.
Leading up to the 1967-68 season, Masterton had excelled in college hockey, leading the Denver University Pioneers to the NCAA championship in 1961 as the MVP of the tournament. After graduating, he signed with the Montreal Canadiens, but they already had too much depth for the center position. Playing for their AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Barons, he finished sixth in scoring in 1962-63, the season before they won the Calder Cup. He retired to earn his masters degree in finance and work for Honeywell Corporation, who manufactured aerospace products (among other things). In 1966-67, he played amateur hockey for the U.S. National Team, catching the attention of Wren Blair, the first coach and general manager for the North Stars. After, as he said, he asked “Bill if he would consider giving pro hockey another fling,” Blair bought his contract from Montreal. Masterton was one of the first two to sign with the North Stars.
With Minnesota, Masterton was surprised that he made the team after training camp. He then scored the very first North Stars’ goal at their first regular-season game on October 11, 1967. Over the next three months, he earned 11 points (4G, 7A). On January 13, the North Stars were in first place and hosted the also-new California Seals at the Met Center. During the first five minutes, Masterton skated into the offensive zone and passed the puck to his right wing Wayne Connelly. Ron Harris of the Seals cleanly checked Masterton, who then crashed into Seals defenseman Larry Cahan and then the ice. The impact of his head on the ice and an accompanying pop was audible around the rink, and he began bleeding. His team knew immediately there was something seriously wrong. Coach Blair later tried to put the moment into words, “He hit so hard that I’m sure he was unconscious before he fell. I’ve never seen anybody go down that way. We heard him crash to the ice from the bench.”
As quickly as possibly, one of the team’s physicians and the trainers looked Masterton over, loaded him onto a stretcher, and carried him off the ice. Four more physicians did what they could for him in the dressing room before an ambulance carried him to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. There, the chief neurosurgeon of the University of Minnesota and his team realized that he had “suffered a massive internal brain injury” and “no surgical procedure could repair an injury that serious.” They put Masterton on life support and warned Blair that he probably would not recover. Bob Reid, the Met Center’s building manager, stayed at the hospital, and the next night he told Blair to prepare the team because the doctors intended to remove Masterton’s life support. His parents (from Winnipeg) and his wife were at his bedside. At 4 a.m. on January 15, 27 hours after the on-ice collision, Blair received word that Masterton was gone.
Meanwhile, the North Stars struggled to keep it together. After the game, they had to leave for Boston in a snowstorm. Because it “took several flights for all the players to reach their destination,” their game with the Bruins was already half over by the time everyone made it there. Unsurprisingly, considering their distractions, the North Stars lost 9-2 that night. At dawn the next morning, Blair went room by room informing his players of Masterton’s passing. Blair wrote in his autobiography, “Most players broke down. Most of these young men had never experienced a death in their own families, and yet here they were facing the loss of a teammate.” North Stars president Walter Bush made the statement, “I’ve lost a person I valued as a friend as well as one of the finest players in our organization. Bill certainly exemplified the type of person I would want my children to become.”
Despite the grief, everyone agreed that the hit was clean. Naturally, Ron Harris was deeply affected and haunted. As he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2003, “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 teammates and family never blamed hockey or anyone for the injury. Masterton went out doing something he loved.
The day after Masterton’s death, a moment of silence was observed before the NHL All-Star Game. Then, since NHL president Clarence Campbell would not reschedule the game for January 18, the North Stars and the visiting Philadelphia Flyers sat across the aisle from each other at Masterton’s funeral. The Flyers defeated the home team 4-2 that night. Blair did everything he could to pull his players out of their shock and establish some normalcy, and by the end of the month, they were able to bounce back competitively.
To aid Masterton’s family, the NHL gave them $60,000 out of the pension fund. The North Stars gave his widow a full share from the playoffs and gave scholarship money to their two children (a 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter). Although no one had worn Masterton’s No. 19, the North Stars officially retired it in 1987.
The heartbreaking incident with Masterton has left two lasting legacies in hockey. First, a stronger advocacy for wearing helmets arose. Although Masterton had worn one in college and the minors, he was discouraged in the NHL. In looking back, it seems that Masterton already had a concussion from a recent game when he struck the ice and hemorrhaged. His teammate and close friend, Cesare Maniago said, “He had been complaining about a steady headache. In retrospect, you would think he had a concussion.” Although President Campbell granted that only “the inordinate skill of the players” prevented injuries from happening, he stated that the NHL did not plan to make helmets mandatory. Until the 1979-80 season, players could choose whether to don protective head gear. More and more made that choice. Before the incident, the only Minnesota player to wear one was Andre Boudrias, and former teammate Dave Balon became one of the first to begin wearing a helmet afterwards.
The other Masterton legacy was the creation of an annual award cup. The North Stars first established the Bill Masterton Memorial Cup for their team MVP (won by Cesare Maniago that season). Meanwhile, the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association began honoring an annual “unsung hero” with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. Claude Provost of the Montreal Canadiens won the 1968 award. The trophy is given “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” as had Masterton.
- Adam Raider, Frozen in Time: A Minnesota North Stars History (2014), kindle version.
- Stephen Laroche, Changing the Game: A History of NHL Expansion (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014), 92-95, 104-107.
- “Masterton Dies of Head Injuries,” St. Paul Dispatch, 15 Jan. 1968, http://www.northstarshockey.com/clip1.htm.