February 12, 2018 10:32 PM
Bill Masterton achieved his dream of playing in the National Hockey League at the unlikely age of 29. He was the first player ever signed by the Minnesota North Stars for the team's inaugural 1967-68 season.
Masterton was an All-American college hockey player at the University of Denver who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. With only six NHL teams and the Canadiens in the midst of winning four out of five Stanley Cup championships in the mid-60s, Masterton couldn't crack the lineup.
He retired in 1964 to take a job with Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis.
He continued playing semi-pro hockey in the Twin Cities, but for the most part he supported his young family with what appeared to be a long career ahead at Honeywell.
Then Wren Blair called.
Blair was the general manager of an expansion franchise, the Minnesota North Stars, that would begin play in the 1967-68 season. He wanted Masterton to come out of retirement and play for the North Stars when the NHL expanded to 12 teams.
"I suppose I surprised a few people by coming back, but I felt I never really had a chance when I was in the Montreal system," Masterton told the Minneapolis Star newspaper in 1967.
He also explained why he came back. "A couple of things," he said. "First, I wanted to prove to myself I could play in the National Hockey League. Secondly, I have a chance to make more money. But I would never return to hockey just for financial reasons. I had to be set in my own mind that I really wanted to play again."
Masterton said he wasn't usually a "gambler," but he couldn't resist the opportunity to play in the NHL.
"That's always in your mind from the time you lace up your first pair of skates. The expansion has given more fellows a chance to make it now."
Masterton's son Scott was not quite 3 years old when his dad signed with the North Stars. His sister Sally was just a year old.
"My mother always told me he just couldn't turn it down," Scott Masterton said last month in an interview. "He said, 'Carol, it's really my last shot at playing pro hockey. I may only have a couple years, but I have to do it.'"
Carol Masterton agreed with the decision.
So the father of two young children took a gamble by leaving a steady job with the Honeywell Corporation to become the first player signed by the North Stars.
He only gave himself a 50-50 chance of making the team, but he did. Not only that, he would go on to score the first goal in franchise history in the team's first game, a 2-2 tie with the St. Louis Blues.
Just 37 games later, Masterton's storybook hockey career took a tragic turn, on Jan. 13, 1968. He became the first player to die as the result of injuries suffered in an NHL game.
It happened in the first period of a game against the Oakland Seals at Met Center in Bloomington.
"You still look at it as something that seems almost like a dream, a nightmare," says former North Star Lou Nanne, who played on the U.S. National hockey team with Masterton and played against him in college.
Scott Masterton says he was told many times what happened.
"He passed the puck and right as he let go of the puck he got hit," he says. "Good, clean hit by two players at the same time. Then he went down and hit his head."
Masterton, like most NHL players at the time, wasn't wearing a helmet.
"They hit him so hard some players … think he was even out before he hit the ice," Nanne said.
Nanne wasn't on the ice that night because he hadn't yet signed with the North Stars. He did later that season.
John Rendall, another former U.S. National teammate of Masterton and a good friend, had just arrived at the North Stars game that night with his wife in the middle of the first period. Masterton was already down on the ice being attended to by medical personnel.
"We noticed on the ice there was activity and we didn't realize it was Bill, but it was Bill being treated on the ice," Rendall told KSTP recently.
He immediately went down to find Masterton's wife in her seat. "She told us they were going to take him to the hospital, and she didn't think it was life-threatening at that point, but it was serious," he recalls of that night.
It's unclear if Masterton ever regained consciousness on the ice. Scott Masterton says he's heard over the years about one player saying his dad did say something.
"It's never really been corroborated, but the thing that (the player) said was that my dad had said 'never again' for a moment, and that was while he was still on the ice," Scott Masterton says.
Masterton was rushed to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, where he was unconscious and kept alive with a respirator.
John Rendall was there when Masterton died early on Jan. 15, 1968, just 30 hours after suffering his injuries.
"Perseverance and sportsmanship and dedication to the game … that was Bill," Rendall says 50 years later, echoing the attributes now required by NHL players to win the Bill Masterton Memorial Award that's been given out since the 1967-68 season.
On this 50th anniversary of Masterton's death, we rediscovered in our KSTP news archives one minute and 11 seconds of film from that game against the Oakland Seals, the only known film clips that exist from that night. Masterton could clearly be seen skating what was one of his final shifts on the ice.
We showed the film to his son Scott, who was just 3 when his dad died. Remarkably, he had never seen any film clips of his dad playing for the North Stars because not much was preserved.
"That's amazing," he says as he watches his dad's smooth skating stride as he digs for a puck in the corner. "It fleshes some things out a little bit. Makes them feel a little more real."
Nanne and Rendall also watched the film and immediately recognized Masterton's skating style.
Nanne said it was strange to see him without a helmet after playing against him in college, and with him on the national team.
"All the time I've ever played with him or against him, he always wore a helmet and then he turned pro and took it off," Nanne says, pointing out that he did the same thing when he joined the North Stars.
We also uncovered in our archives an interview with former Philadelphia Flyers head coach Keith Allen when his team arrived in Minnesota to play the North Stars three days after Masterton's death.
"Coach, of course the whole league, and in fact the whole sports world, has been saddened by Bill Masterton's death," a KSTP reporter says. "What's been the reaction of your players to possibly wearing head gear?"
"I think some of our players now are considering wearing it," Allen responded. "It's a strange thing that a tragedy like this seems to point out the need for something, maybe."
Stranger still, it would be another 11 years before the NHL, in 1979, mandated helmets for all new players entering the league. At that point, current players were grandfathered in, so many continued playing in the NHL without helmets. The last player to play without a helmet was Craig Mactavish of the St. Louis Blues in 1997, nearly 30 years after Masterton's death.
Scott Masterton says he still thinks his dad's death forced the NHL to make the change sooner than it would have otherwise.
"I think (my dad's death) was probably a hallmark moment in the NHL – maybe sports in general," he says. "You know, when people realized this is deadly stuff."
Nanne says it's fitting that Bill Masterton's name now graces a coveted trophy that goes to players as much for how they conduct themselves off the ice as they do on the ice.
"He was a classy, talented hockey player. Just a superb gentleman and great family man."
Updated: February 12, 2018 10:32 PM
Created: February 12, 2018 10:19 PM
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