January 13, 1968 — Minnesota North Stars vs. Oakland Seals
By Mark Weisenmiller

The first death of a hockey player during an NHL game

Editors Note: Center Ice Magazine routinely dedicates this space to a celebration of "Great Games in Hockey History." It goes without saying that this story  — about the death of Bill Masterton from head injuries suffered in an NHL game — does not fall into that category. However, it was a significant event in hockey history — and it's worth reporting — because it eventually led the NHL to mandate that all its players wear a helmet, even though it took years for the league to act.

When the first Minnesota North Stars team was being put together, for the 1967-68 season, general manager Wren Blair signed veterans Cesare Maniago and “Gump” Worsley to share the goaltending duties. To balance young and talented forwards Bill Goldsworthy and J.P. Parise, Blair added a trio of seasoned troopers — Ted Harris, Bob Nevin, and Dean Prentice.

Blair also invited a 29-year-old Winnipeg native who was retired from hockey and working for the Honeywell Corp. to try out for the team in training camp. Bill Masterton had been a two-time NCAA All-American at Denver University. In 1961, he was named the MVP of what is now known as the “Frozen Four” after leading the Pioneers to the NCAA championship.

After graduation, Masterton signed with the Montreal Canadiens and played in their farm system. However, with the Canadiens featuring future Hall-of-Famers Jean Beliveau, “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and Henri Richard in their lineup, there was no way that a player of Masterton’s modest talents was going to play in the NHL for the Canadiens anytime soon.

Realizing that, Masterton gave up hockey in 1963 and returned to Denver to get a master’s degree in finance. At Honeywell, he spent his evenings playing amateur hockey.

Masterton, married with two children, performed so well during the North Stars’ training camp that Blair, who was both GM and coach of the club, added him to the roster.

Assigned sweater number 19, Masterton was popular with his teammates for giving his best effort during every shift and for being personable. They nicknamed him “Bat” Masterton after the legendary American cowboy.

He scored the first goal in North Stars history-- on Oct. 11, 1967, against the St. Louis Blues. With just four goals and eight assists during the first half of the season, Masterton, a perfectionist who was merciless when evaluating his own hockey skills, had become dissatisfied with his play.

 

 

Still, he was a fan favorite and was looking forward to playing front of the home crowd when he and his teammates took the ice in Minnesota’s Metropolitan Arena on Jan. 13 to play the Oakland Seals.

About four minutes into the game, Masterton skated into the Seals’ zone and passed the puck to right wing Wayne Connelly. Almost simultaneously, the Seals’ Ron Harris and Larry Cahan clobbered Masterton.

The helmet-less North Star center flew backward and struck his head on the ice so hard that blood began to flow from his nose and ears.

Unconscious, Masterton was rushed by ambulance to Minneapolis’s Fairview-Southdale Hospital. Five doctors, two of them neurosurgeons, could not save his life due to the massive injuries to Masterton’s brain and skull. He died 30 hours later, on Jan. 15

Many NHL players who were not sure about wearing a helmut before then began wearing one after Masterton’s death. But NHL resident Clarence Campbell declined to make helmuts manadatory. Quoted in “Hockey! The Story of the World’s Fastest Sport,” published in 1969, Campbell said:

“Masterton’s accident was a normal hazard of our business. Serious situations like it have been rare in the NHL because of the inordinate skill of the players. There have always been some critics who defend helmets. The fact is that the very best ones money can buy are available to the teams if the players want them . . . Some players just won’t wear a helmet.”

In 1979, the NHL mandated that any player signed to their first NHL contract after June of that year must wear a helmet.

Meanwhile, number 19 (The number was later retired by the North Stars.) and his devotion to hockey live on. The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is awarded at the end of every NHL season to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”





 
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