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On This Date in Sports January 13, 1968: The Death of Bill Masterton

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Tragedy strikes the NHL as Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars is fatally injured during a game against the Oakland Seals at the Met Center. Masterton was rushing up the ice at full speed, looking to make a pass, when he was met by Seals defenders Larry Cahan and Ron Harris, causing him to hit his head on the ice. Bill Masterton would die two days later, the first and only fatality in NHL history.

Bill Masterton was born on August 13, 1938, in Winnipeg. Attending college at the University of Denver, Masterton was one of the top players in the NCAA, leading the Pioneers to a pair of National Championship. Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, Masterton was trapped in the minors due to the limited roster space in the Original Six era. Despite success in the minors, Masterton left the Canadiens to complete his Master’s Degree in engineering. After graduation, Bill Masterton settled in the Twin Cities, taking a job with the Honeywell Corporation, where he worked on the Apollo program.

After a year away from the game, Bill Masterton regained his amateur status in 1964. Playing senior hockey, Masterton became an American citizen and a US National Hockey team member. In 1967, he was the leading scorer and MVP for Team USA. That year the NHL announced that it would expand to 12 teams. Among the six new teams were the Minnesota North Stars, who acquired Masterton’s rights and signed him to a contract.

On October 11, 1967, Bill Masterton made his NHL debut, at the age of 29, scoring the first goal in the history of the Minnesota North Stars as they played the St. Louis Blues to a 2-2 at the St. Louis Arena. Heading into their home game against the Oakland Seals, Masterton had four goals and eight assists in 38 games. Looking to generate offense, Bill Masterton rushed up the ice at full speed when the collision occurred with Larry Cahan and Ron Harris. As soon as the Minnesota team trainer got out to see Masterton, it was clear the injury was severe as he was bleeding from his ears, nose, and mouth and was unconscious. With both teams shaken, the game would end in a 2-2 tie.

Bill Masterton was taken to a local hospital, where doctors concluded the injury was too severe for surgery. He was placed on life support, so his family could gather around him in the hospital. His family would be at his side as he died 30 hours later on January 15th. Masterton’s North Stars teammates would play the day after his accident and were beaten by the Boston Bruins 9-2, as news came that he was removed from life support. The North Stars would lose four straight after the first and only NHL fatality.

At the time of Bill Masterton’s death, few NHL players wore helmets. His death began a movement to require helmets, but the players continued to reject the rule change. It would not be until 1979 that NHL could finally mandate helmets, though players in the league before then could remain helmet-less due to a grandfather clause. Both players who caused the hit were said to be haunted by the play for years.

The NHL would honor the later Bill Masterton by creating an award in 1968 that recognized perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The award is typically given to a player who has overcome injury, illness, or other personal setbacks.