Everything about the Masterton award makes me uncomfortable

It’s Masterton day, the day the nominations for this award are made public. I don’t like this award, or its process, and if you made me emperor of the NHL, I’d mothball it, and I’d replace it with an award that recognizes people who make the NHL better.

The award is named for Bill Masterton, and is given by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, an organization I never aspire to join. The award is for “the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” The first clue that this award is all about things not said is that the official NHL page for it glosses fairly lightly over Masterton’s story and doesn’t really tell you the way in which he persevered.

The list of the winners on that page is a walk through memories of recent trials and tribulations, with a few happy years where the winner was just a guy who grew old before he retired.

In the modern world, it’s a sob story award. The nomination process, where each team picks a player before the PHWA picks a “winner”, is step one of a ranking system applied to the sob story potential of each player. One man’s dead brother goes up against the NHL’s unwillingness to deal sensibly with concussions and asks you to pick between Kevin Hayes and Ondřej Kaše.

I’m sorry that sentence is so blunt, but this award is about circumspection and how we’ve changed as a culture in what we will or won’t talk about, and I don’t think merely alluding to the things that are weird to me about this award is a good idea. Bluntness seems to be necessary.

No one has ever got the Masterton for putting up with 30 years of racism to play NHL hockey. No one gave the Masterton to Börje Salming for sacrificing his face for the future of the NHL. I cringe in advance for when it’s awarded to the first out gay player. That’s the kind of sentiment that plays these days. Racism, or the more subtle homophobia in hockey, is still too touchy a topic.

Bill Masterton died because of injuries he received in an NHL game. An ESPN story from 2016 suggests his death was directly a result of concussions.

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. 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, who was not wearing a helmet, smacked the back of his head on the ice. “It sounded like a baseball bat hitting a ball,” teammate André Boudrias recalled.

This ESPN story — perfectly ordinary in tone and form — contains a lot of the elements of the sob story, just made subtle for the 21st century. The point of this story is to make you the reader feel something. There’s vivid quotes from witnesses to the last moments of a man not yet 30 (see what I did there?) and the story eventually moves onto the clinical details of an autopsy that discovered a prior brain injury caused in a game a few days before.

The award grew out of a conversation amongst beat writers at the 1968 All-Star Game, after Masterton’s death. They wanted a tribute to this man who died for the NHL as it was, and as it still is in many ways. I think that’s easy to understand how they felt at that time when the emotions of that death were new and raw.

The PHWA is capable today of giving this award to Kaše with no sense of irony whatsoever.

The NHL is a bottled up sport. Emotions are supposed to be either incandescent rage or something else “classy”. (Someone called me classy the other day for just being honest about how much I loved Guy Lafleur, and I think this article is me rebelling against that. I ain’t never wanted class.) The NHL, for some obvious reasons, doesn’t t talk about things like love and joy and the depth of feeling a team sport creates in the players. We almost never hear about how they truly hate each other. Rather we get manufactured rivalries complete with superficial pro-wrestling style commentary like the Simmonds vs. Maroon business.

No one will ever win the Masterton for being expected to become a hard man fighter just because he’s Black.

The sob story has an interesting history in journalism. In was the way women got their foot in the door decades before the first woman was being harassed for covering NHL hockey. In 1907, as Wikipedia has is, the term “Sob Sister” was born to describe women writing about a trial of the day. The term is meant as a put down. Real reporters don’t do sob stories. Which is twaddle. Real reporters, men, in other words, do drippy sentimental emo crap all the time. Sometimes it’s a good story, often it’s just manipulative junk that supports a status quo and only asks you to cry for some kinds of hard times.

Back in 1968 — okay, I was four years old, so it’s not like the memories are vivid — but a lot of things didn’t get talked about in polite company. Newspapers should never have aspired to politeness, but there were a host of things they never talked about directly: drug addiction, cancer, suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse. Given that, it’s likely impossible to even know exactly why they gave out the Masterton in the early years.

Claude Prevost won the first one (won is such a weird word for this, yet that’s how you get a trophy, you win it). He was a tough but clean player who won 8 million Stanley Cups for the Habs and was 35 and two years from retirement in 1968. Maybe he had a secret tragedy in his life that would make him eligible today. But back then, this was what the award was for. His modern equivalent of him is likely Paul Stastny or Joe Pavelski.

The world has changed a lot since 1968. A hell of a lot of that change is for the better. And the NHL image of the stoic tough guy who plays a hard game, but isn’t too skilled or too clever or too attractive, is fading away. You get your ass banned from hockey blogs these days for saying a lot of things the very beat writers who created this award thought and said every day.

No one is going to give the Masterton to a man who was sexually victimized.

The openness of the world is a good thing. Find any hockey player who has talked publicly about his mental health and ask him what the reaction has been. People seem to need to hear that sort of thing from a strong man, honestly told. I think the drippy sentiment of the old newspaper sob story cheapens that honorable act of choosing to share to open minds and hearts.

Real stories of trials and tribulations aren’t always simple. Guilt goes hand in hand with the pain and the innocence and the victimization. Think of the complicated stories of players who on the one hand have suffered and on the other hand have caused suffering. You know who I mean.

No one will give the Masterton to someone who isn’t clean enough for public consumption today.

The Masterton has no room for complexity, not unless the nasty side effects of the suffering the player has gone through were kept behind closed doors and in the family. The world hasn’t changed that much. Suffering still rebounds off onto partners and children, and their role is to keep that to themselves, and not muddy the sentimental flow of tears. The Masterton has to go to a “good” person. Part of the fandom response will be measuring the goodness of the nominees, judging the purity.

The sob story is about consumption of suffering. The Masterton, perhaps inevitably, has become the award won by the player with the best sob story. It’s a tear-jerker competition. Whose recent life story has the right amount of tragedy in it to make you the consumer feel a little better about your lot in life while you feel sorry for the good and nobel man?

There’s no room for blame in these stories. We won’t talk about the way the NHL created the conditions for Kaše’s suffering or boggle at the irony of a man playing through post-concussion syndrome up for this award. We’ll just cluck our tongues over his suffering from him, and in this truly odd way, try to weigh and measure his pain against all the other sob stories, or the lucky few who just got old playing hockey. We won’t talk about how the NHL and the NHLPA may have failed Jimmy Hayes, we’ll just brush away a tear for Kevin’s pain and be grateful it’s not our pain.

We won’t try to make hockey better for any of those whose suffering is yet to come. Sentiment, after all, is a celebration of the past.

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