NHL

Bill Masterton Tragically Became the Only NHL Player to Die From His On-Ice Injuries: ‘It Sounded Like a Baseball Bat Hitting a Ball’

While hockey might not be the most popular of the four major North American sports, it still has a devoted fan base. Among the game’s diehard fans, there’s a name that stands tall in history for an unfortunate reason: Bill Masterton.

Today, Bill Masterton’s name is most commonly associated with the memorial trophy that carries his name; it’s awarded annually to the NHL player who exhibits perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The man himself, however, should not be forgotten.

Bill Masterton took a long and winding road to the NHL

Bill Masterton tragically died after an innocent, on-ice hit.
Bill Masterton (right) finally made it to the NFL as a member of the Minnesota North Stars. | Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

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In the world of sports, most players follow a similar developmental path, climbing from the youth level to college (or, in hockey’s case, juniors) before making it to the pros. Bill Masterton, however, did things a bit differently.

After growing up in Winnipeg, Masterton took his talents to the University of Denver, where he hit the ice for the Pioneers. He showed enough skill at the college level to earn a contract with the Montreal Canadiens; that deal, however, wasn’t his ticket to the big time.

Since the Canadiens organization was stacked with talent, Masterton was sent to the minors; while he posted strong numbers in the Eastern Professional Hockey League and the American Hockey League, there simply wasn’t a spot for him on the Habs’ roster. It seemed that his hockey career had come to a premature end.

After a brief spell in amateur hockey, though, opportunity finally knocked on Masterton’s door. When the NHL expanded in 1967, the Minnesota North Stars came calling; they acquired the forward’s rights from the Canadiens and slotted him into their lineup.

An on-ice accident and a tragic death

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During the 1967-68 season, Bill Masterton got his chance to live his dream as an NHL player. That campaign—and his life—would end in tragedy, though.

“On that fatal night at Met Center on Jan. 13, 1968, the Minnesota North Stars center, playing against the Oakland Seals, carried the puck across the blue line and cut to the right while Seals defensemen Larry Cahan and Ron Harris closed in,” ESPN’s John Rosengren explained. “One of their sticks tangled with Masterton’s skates as he slid a pass to his wing, and he lost his balance, pitching forward. He didn’t see the other defender, who caught him with a clean check that knocked him backward.”

Masterton hit his head on the ice. “It sounded like a baseball bat hitting a ball,” his teammate André Boudrias remembered.

While the center was rushed to the hospital, it was too late. Doctors decided against operating due to swelling of Masterton’s brain; a day later, his family chose to remove him from life support.

Bill Masterton was 29-years old and had played 38 NHL games when he died.

The NHL hasn’t forgotten about Bill Masterton

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As you would assume, the tragic death of Bill Masterton shook the hockey world to its core. Even today, the forward hasn’t been forgotten.

In 1968, shortly after his death, the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy was born. The award, which is still given annually, goes to the NHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” As the Hockey Hall of Fame’s official website explains, the winner, in theory, “exhibits the same qualities as Bill Masterton.”

In many cases, pro athletes can seem like superheroes. Bill Masterton’s tragic death, however, serves as a painful reminder that, despite their fame and fortune, they’re still human.