The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is voted on annually by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The writers have their work cut out for them this year, since all three finalists are unquestionably worthy of the award.
Bill Masterton died on January 15, 1968 at the age of 29. He had hit his unhelmeted head on the ice just over a day earlier in a game between the expansion Minnesota North Stars and the Oakland Seals. Masterton had all but given up on professional hockey, going back to school for a Masters degree, playing in the amateur USHL, and then for the US national team. The NHL expansion of 1967 changed his plans. He scored Minnesota’s first goal in their first game, and was known for being a hard worker with a great sense of humour. His work ethic may have in part contributed to his death, as many believe he was playing through significant concussion symptoms. Some spectators insisted he was unconscious before he ever hit the ice, and nobody would argue that it was a horrific scene. Masterton lay motionless and bleeding, and was stretchered off the ice and rushed to hospital. He never woke up, and died the following night. The theory is that Masterton suffered from second impact syndrome* – when a concussion occurs before an earlier one has healed. It causes rapid and severe brain swelling, and almost always death.
Masterton’s death led NHL players to reconsider helmets, but reluctance to deviate from tradition, appear weak, or whichever excuse you prefer meant that it was 1979 before they were finally grandfathered in.
* Experts disagree on whether second impact syndrome is a real clinical entity. Regardless of whether you call it second impact syndrome, diffuse cerebral swelling, or cerebral bloodflow dysautoregulation with resultant hyperemia, the fact remains that people who hit their heads more than once can die. Quickly.
And the nominees are…
From the NHL’s press release announcing the finalists:
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby took to the ice in 2012-13 following two seasons in which he
had missed extended time due to concussion symptoms. His offseason training
and preparation paid off in a remarkable start to the season, as he
recorded points in nine of his first 11 games. He continued his torrid
scoring into March, helping the Penguins post 15 consecutive wins. Crosby
led the League in points by a double-digit margin on March 30, when he was
struck in the face with a puck. He underwent surgery that night for a
broken jaw and significant dental work was required in later days while he
worked toward a return to the Penguins lineup.
Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild
When faced with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, an incurable
autoimmune disease, last fall, Harding made it clear that his career wasn’t
over. In his first start of the season, Harding made 24 saves to shut out
the Dallas Stars 1-0 on Jan. 20. On Feb. 12, after feeling ill from
medications treating the disease, he was placed on Injured Reserve and
missed 33 games as he continued treatment. However, the netminder continued
his fight with the disease and, after a two-game conditioning assignment
with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League, was activated from
Injured Reserve on April 22 and returned to the Wild lineup.
Adam McQuaid, Boston Bruins
McQuaid suffered a season-threatening injury in September when his
right arm grew increasingly swollen. He was diagnosed with a condition
known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome that was causing dangerous blood clots to
form in his body. After undergoing two emergency surgeries to remove the
blood clots, the defenseman was deemed unfit to continue his normal
offseason workouts in order to give his body adequate time to heal.
McQuaid’s dedication to his rehabilitation efforts later in the fall
hastened his recovery and he skated alongside his teammates on opening
night of the 2012-13 season against the New York Rangers at TD Garden.
Unbelievable. How do you pick between concussions/broken jaw, MS, and thoracic outlet syndrome? Crosby’s injuries had everyone wondering if his career was over. So did Harding’s MS and McQuaid’s thoracic outlet syndrome. All three finalists put in amounts of effort that would be impressive for any elite athlete, let alone elite athletes with life-threatening conditions. All three finalists held on to the singular goal of making it back to the NHL (oh, and surviving too).
Sidney Crosby’s concussions started in January of 2011 thanks to a hit from David Steckel at the Winter Classic. He finished the game. He played another game. He got hit again in that next game. The Penguins admitted he had a concussion, and it was November of 2012 before he was back playing again. In the interim came rumours that he was retiring, that he’d had a setback, that he was fine, that he wasn’t fine, that the team was trying to unload him, and all things in between. Crosby lasted seven games before he was out again with post-concussion syndrome, which then morphed into neck problems. His agent Pat Brisson used the word fracture, then quickly backed away from the term. A neurospine expert (Dr. Robert Bray) said his neck problem was an old, healed injury. Mystery continued to swirl until March of 2012 when Crosby returned – this time for good. He tallied a ridiculous 56 points in the shortened 2012-13 season and was sailing towards the playoffs like a champ until a puck in the mouth in late March broke his jaw and knocked out several teeth. No big deal, because he showed up for the first round of the playoffs a month, several surgeries, and a few broken teeth later. After double-digit postseason points, he’s still Crosbying along in an enormous plastic jaw shield like it’s nothing. To Crosby apparently it’s exactly that. Nothing.
Minnesota’s Josh Harding was feeling terrible late in the summer of 2012. His vision was blurred, his right leg was numb, and he was dizzy. He thought he’d hurt his neck, and an MRI of the neck led to an MRI of the brain, which led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. MS is an incurable autoimmune condition in which your own body attacks the sheaths covering your nerves. Nerves lose their ability to effectively carry signals, scars form in the brain and spinal cord, and a rainbow of terrifying neurologic symptoms develop. Since MS can’t be cured, the goal of therapy is to manage symptoms and prevent flares. MS can be progressive, where a steady decline in function occurs, or relapsing, where periods of relative normalcy are interrupted by “attacks” of symptoms which may or may not leave behind permanent neurologic changes. Harding didn’t crumple in the face of a terrifying diagnosis. He spent the lockout attacking his diagnosis with aggressive treatment, told his team what he was up against, and then started his season with a shutout. What’s more impressive is that he pulled himself in February when his performance suffered due to medication side effects. MS medications are complicated, and the side effects can be significant. Harding didn’t want his problem to affect the team, and didn’t want to play until he felt good. He came back in late April, and ended up being the starting goalie for the playoffs when Niklas Backstrom injured himself in the pregame warmups. He refused to let his MS diagnosis define him, and it didn’t. Despite a leg injury in game four, he managed a series .911 SV% and 2.94 GAA against the league-leading Blackhawks. Not bad for a guy who only played five regular-season games this year.
Adam McQuaid is playing without one rib and part of a neck muscle on his right side this season. He had thoracic outlet syndrome, which is when the nerves and blood vessels that run down your neck and into your arm get compressed in the upper chest (the thoracic outlet). It can happen for a variety of reasons – because of an injury, postural problems, a tumour, even an extra rib. Most commonly it’s from trauma to the area. McQuaid’s arm became hugely swollen, and a large clot developed near his shoulder that had to be surgically removed. To keep the compression, subsequent swelling and clot from recurring, his top rib and part of a muscle in his neck were removed, and he was placed on blood thinners. He had a daunting rehab ahead of him, projected to keep him out of the 2012-13 season. Worse yet, he was without the support of the Bruins. Not because they didn’t want to help – they couldn’t. It was the lockout, and he was on his own. McQuaid used the time off to regain the strength in his arm, and turned an entire season of rehab into a couple of months. He started the season with his team, no longer requiring blood thinners. If the gravity of the situation hasn’t made itself obvious yet, consider the following: Clots can travel to dangerous places like the lungs, brain or spine. That can kill you or permanently disable you. Massive limb swelling can cut off the blood supply. That can damage a limb beyond repair. Nerves aren’t optional for having limbs that work. All of the nerves for his right arm were compressed. This is a guy who was at risk of losing his NHL career (or his arm) who took on his condition like it was a shoulder sprain. A few months of harder work than any of us can possibly imagine, and ready to go for game one of the season.
I don’t envy the writers who vote on these awards. Some of them will have obvious winners, but the Masterton isn’t on that list. All three of them unequivocally deserve it. Perseverence? Check. Sportsmanship? Check. Dedication to hockey? Check, check, check.
So – who ya got?