In today’s report we focus on one thing – the first fatality in National Hockey League history.
Masterton NHL’s First Fatality
William John Masterton, age 29 and a forward with the Minnesota North Stars, today becomes the first player in National Hockey League history to die as a result of injuries sustained in a league game. Masterton was injured when he struck his head on the ice after being body-checked during the early moments of Saturday evening’s contest between the North Stars and Oakland Seals in Minneapolis. He was, like the overwhelming majority of NHL players, not wearing a helmet at the time.
The play in question happened during the first shift of the game. Masterton was Minnesota’s starting centre for the game, between left winger Dave Balon and right wing Wayne Connelly. Not long after the opening faceoff Masterton carried the puck at full speed into the Oakland zone. He made a backhand pass to Connelly just as Seals defencemen Ron Harris and Larry Cahan converged on him.
Most eyes in the rink followed the puck and so very few people actually saw the collision.
Referee Wally Harris may have had the best view of the incident. He said that after Masterton made his pass, he skated into the Seals defence. He was hit solidly but cleanly, and his feet appeared to flip up in front of him. His body went down backwards and, Harris said, it seemed his head hit the ice before anything else.
“It was obvious he was badly hurt. I stopped play immediately but did not call any penalty because no foul occurred.”
North Stars manager-coach Wren Blair said that he had never seen a player fall in that manner:
“Masterton was checked hard, but I’m sure it wasn’t a dirty play. We heard his crash to the ice on the bench.
“He hit so hard that I’m sure he was unconscious before he fell. I’ve never seen anybody go down that way.”
As soon as Harris saw Masterton wasn’t getting up he stopped play. Team mates rushed to his aid and trainer Stan Waylett and assistant Al Schuenman were summoned from the bench. They administered what first aid they could until on-site medical staff and a stretcher arrived on the scene. North Stars players Dave Balon and Andre Boudrias (the only helmeted Minnesota player) did not leave Masterton’s side until he left the ice surface.
Bleeding profusely from a wound on the back of the head, Masterton was carefully loaded on to the stretcher and removed to a waiting ambulance.
Reports from the hospital indicated that he never regained consciousness after his arrival. Varying reports suggest he may have been briefly awake after the hit, but that has not been confirmed.
Five doctors, including two of the city’s foremost neurosurgeons, were called in and remained with him until he passed away at 1:55 a.m. this morning. No surgery was performed.
Masterton’s family was notified and brought to the hospital from Winnipeg yesterday.
Dr. Franklin Siddell, North Stars team physician, said that he didn’t believe an inquest into the death would be held.
“There is not a formal hearing held in this state for this kind of thing – it’s not the procedure.”
A post-mortem examination will be held today to determine the exact cause of death.
Bill Masterton is survived by his wife, a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. After graduating from the University of Denver he played two professional seasons, one with Hull-Ottawa of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, and one with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League.
As property of the Montreal Canadiens, Masterton felt he had little chance to make the NHL with centres such as Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Ralph Backstrom already on the roster. So after the 1962-63 season, he quit hockey and went back to school to earn his Master’s degree in finance.
Stars general manager Blair saw Masterton when he played with the U.S. national team and purchased his contract from Montreal last summer. He made the team out of training camp based simply on hard work and a refusal to quit.
In recent games he has centered the team’s number one line with Balon and Connelly on the wings.
Why No Helmets?
It has been a question asked by many quarters for a long time: why don’t more NHL players wear helmets?
Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Bobby Haggart has long been a proponent of helmets for hockey players. He says that he warned his team about three years ago that it would take a serious incident to change things.
“Speaking personally, I think its best for everyone to wear them. I’m 100 per cent in favour. Yes, I think they should be compulsory.”
Only one of the Minnesota North Stars wears headgear. Centre Andre Boudrias wore the helmet throughout his junior career with Montreal Junior Canadiens and retained it when he turned professional. But he’s part of a tiny minority of NHL players.
Most players feel that the helmets are too heavy, too hot or just plain too uncomfortable. There is also the thought that fans won’t recognize players if they all sport the headgear.
There is no incentive from team managements for players to wear helmets. Blair himself has gone on record saying that a player’s effectiveness is reduced by 10 to 15 per cent when he wears a helmet.
With those attitudes firmly ensconced, it’s no surprise that so few players have taken to the helmet.
Maybe the loss of a player will shake those attitudes. It certainly should at least prompt the powers that be to start thinking about it.
In the coming days, we’ll report on reaction from around the NHL and hopefully, more details on the accident will become known.