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January 13, 1968.....Tragedy Then Change

January 13, 2007, 1:13 PM ET [ Comments]

January 13th 1968 was the day that Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars suffered a fatal head injury during a game. The North Stars were playing the Oakland Seals when he slipped in a scramble in front of the net and his head struck the ice. Masterton died 48 hours later on January 15th from massive brain injuries. He played at the University of Denver from 1958-61, and then bounced around the minors until 1966. He played for Team USA in 1966-67, and for the North Stars in the 67-68 season. It was the first time a player suffered a fatal injury while playing in a NHL game. The Masterton Trophy was named in his honor and is given each year to a player who exemplifies dedication and perseverance to the game of hockey. Masterton played in the EPHL, AHL, USHL and finally years later in the NHL. His best point production came in the 1962-63 season with the Cleveland Barons in which he had 82 points. Bill was 29 years old when he died and was just starting to realize his NHL dream. His wife Carol, a son Scott who was 3, and a daughter Sally who was 1 at the time of his death, survived him.

I was 11 years old when Bill died, but I still remember my Dad speaking to his best friend Elmer “Moose” Vasko about that terrible night. Moose went to the North Stars from the Hawks in the expansion draft. He told my Dad that they knew immediately that Bill was hurt badly. Doctors were on the ice right away, but his injury was just too severe. Unfortunately the amount of internal bleeding and brain damage was so extensive that it cost him his life. I wonder how many NHL players now even know about this terrible story? It was 39 years ago, a very long time and much has changed in the NHL.

It took a tragedy like this one to draw attention to the need for helmets. No one wore a helmet to play in the NHL before the Masterton tragedy, unless recovering from an injury. The NHL instituted the mandatory helmet rule prior to the 1979-80 season. It took many years for that to become a required practice for all those playing. Players already in the League could continue not wearing helmets until they retired. Craig MacTavish was the last to play without a helmet as he retired in 1997.

This illustrates how reluctant we are to accept change, not only in hockey but also in life in general. One change that did happen rather quickly had to do with another unfortunate incident. There was a spectator death as a result of an injury from a puck that occurred during a Blue Jacket game in 2002. A 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, died as a result of a head injury because of getting hit by a puck while seated in the stands. This was the first time a death was caused from a puck leaving the ice during an NHL game. Never before in the Leagues history did a fan ever suffer a fatal injury. This time rules were implemented the following season to screen in areas around the ice to hopefully prevent any further serious injuries or fatalities.

It took about 11 years after Masterton’s death for the NHL to require helmets to be worn by players, and many more years for the rule to be fully implemented. Fortunately the change concerning fan safety happened a lot quicker. Time goes by so fast we all can seem to forget the losses suffered by others. Unfortunately even in today’s world tragedy happens first many times before needed changes are brought about. My condolences to the families of Bill Masterton and Brittanie Cecil I am deeply sorry for your loss. I know that the price that you have all paid is too great, but make no mistake the losses suffered have brought about needed change.
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