The Minnesota North Stars were taking on the California Seals at the Met Center. It was a typical game between the expansion teams of the era, with an odd combination of brilliance and sloppiness on display. That abrupt doubling and, soon, trebling of the league's size had rescued major-league calibre players from unjust obscurity, allowed older veterans to eke out a few successful years in an era of no pensions and working-class salaries, and thrust the mediocrities of the minor leagues into a spotlight they never deserved.
It seems unfair to say so in light of events, but Bill Masterton was one of the latter category. A centre from Winnipeg, a minor league lifer, alumnus of the University of Denver, point-per-game man with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League in 1962-63, and former United States national team member, but never good enough for the NHL in the most competitive years of its history, not even good enough for the Montreal Canadiens to retain him as a useful farmhand they way they did so much of their talent in the 1960s. But expansion saved him. The North Stars' leading scorer was former Boston fourth liner Wayne Connelly, who scored thirty-five goals and still somehow finished -36, their star a somewhat eccentric goaltender from Trail by the name of Cesare Maniago who after two years as the New York Rangers' backup surged to a 22-16-9 campaign with a 2.77 goals-against average and who would star for the North Stars for almost a decade. In this group Masterton stood out as a solid role player who came as close to outscoring as any Minnesota forward that year would.
This was, we are so often told, a different age of the game, an age with a diluted talent pool, an age before mandatory helmets, an age of truculence and the old-time hockey that Slap Shot would later iconify. But what we saw January 15, 1968 was not a vicious act. Not even by today's standards, when Dion Phaneuf elbows a guy in the chops and the crowd roars while the reporters tut sternly. Masterton had his head down and Seals defenseman Ron Harris caught Masterton with shoulder check that hit the North Stars centre absolutely flush. As he stumbled, Harris's defensive partner Larry Cahan hit Masterton almost simultaneously and probably accidentally, knocking the winded Masterton off balance. He fell, and his bare head hit the ice, and he died, forty-two years ago today.It was a clean hit, we are told. Nor has it been hockey's only tragedy. Fellow AJHL fans will remember Trevor Elton, late captain of the Sherwood Park Crusaders, killed on a clean hit by the St. Albert Saints. You certainly know the name Don Sanderson, striking the ice after a fight just over a year ago, or Aleksei Cherepanov and his accidental hit to the chest turned cardiac arrest, or those innumerable others from across the minor and junior leagues who time has forgotten. Hockey is not alone in its ability to make tragedy out of joy, but it may be alone in the reverence accorded to those it has taken. Perhaps it is meaningful that, while most sports treat an award for perseverance and sportsmanship as a second-rate prize, the Bill Masterton Trophy is accorded the respect and even the debate worthy of the Hart or the Vezina.
The only thing more constant than memory is the same understandable, unforgettable rallying cry: never again. Masterton is remembered not only by the trophy that bears his name, or the number nineteen hanging from the American Airlines Center, or even the $2,500 scholarship handed out in his honour every year, but by the helmet worn by every major league hockey player since Craig MacTavish's retirement. It was not science or medicine but the fate of Masterton, and the other forgotten tragedies, and even the near brushes like that suffered by Ted Green from Wayne Maki. Here we are not alone. Other sports have had similar experiences; when Ray Mancini killed Duk Koo Kim in the boxing ring, the once-iconic fifteen championship rounds had been reduced to twelve by 1989 in response.
But it's interesting, the way these things go. Duk Koo Kim died after a fourteen-round fight, but his death was caused by his being an overmatched and overweight but determined fighter with a lethargic corner man who decided his first ever fight outside of South Korea should be in Las Vegas against the lightweight champion of the world with power so feared he was nicknamed "Boom-Boom". A helmet might have saved Bill Masterton, but Trevor Elton was wearing one the night he died. So was Don Sanderson, until it slipped off.
This, too, other sports are familiar with: just ask the family of Mexican featherweight Daniel Aguillón, killed by an Alejandro Sanabria uppercut in the twelfth round on October 20, 2008. Yet even in boxing, we hear the tut-tuts of the experts: twelve round fights are inherently dangerous. Reduce them to ten. Or eight, or six, or however many it takes until the boxers of the world can sit at home in their bathrobes, safe in the knowledge that they need never face danger again.
Contact sports have an inevitable and even desirable element of risk. Hockey is popular not least because of its crunching bodychecks, its thundering slapshots, and even its fights, each of which can and has killed somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Add this to the simple risks of athletic activity, the strain it places on the heart and the rest of the body, and you have an activity that will claim lives from time to time no matter how much we grieve.
Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dragons died January 2, 2009, because he was in a fight, and his helmet wasn't done up properly, and he lost his grip at precisely the wrong moment, and the one-in-a-million chance came through. He was not a child, and he was not a millionaire. He was a senior hockey player in Ontario. When you play for the Whitby Dragons or a team like them, you're well beyond doing it for a living and into doing it for love. The same with Bill Masterton, who plugged away for years in the minors, training when he could get time away from his real job, toiling with the knowledge that in the six-team NHL he could never possibly make the show, because hockey was important. The same with Trevor Elton, twenty years old, playing tier II junior as an overager, his professional career over before it had begun but taking the ice anyway because it was what he wanted. So why must every tragedy in sport be met by changing that sport, by turning what these men loved into something different, by honouring their memories with knee-jerk hysteria, by turning "never again" into a cry for desperate, ineffective, and even counter-productive action rather than a chance to advertise the risks in this sport of ours, so that whatever the inevitable next tragedy may be, at least we cannot say they weren't fully aware of the possibility?