First and foremost, I would like to extend my congratulations to Kurtis Foster (Tampa Bay), Jose Theodore (Washington) and Jed Ortmeyer (San Jose) each for their nominations for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded each year "to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."
I think the Masterton is one of the really cool trophies that the NHL hands out at season's end. It, along with the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, is not simply given to the one guy who is best at a particular position in a given year, or who topped a specific statistical category. It's handed out based on what kind of person you are. The King Clancy recognizes humanitarian contributions to the community. The Masterton recognizes dedication to hockey. They are character-based trophies, and that's cool.
I've said before that one of the reasons I love this sport is that each team, each season, and each player has a story. The Masterton is about telling those stories, and each team is able to put forth a nominee whose story is worth telling. There are players like Vernon Fiddler (Phoenix), Matt Carkner (Ottawa), and Michael Leighton (Philadelphia), who were nominated for sticking with it and finally breaking through as fulltime NHLers, despite years of plugging away in the minors, or in fringe roles.
There are the battle-weary veterans who have continued playing, hanging on in the league and performing at high levels. These are guys like Mark Recchi (Boston), Rod Brind'Amour (Carolina), or Bill Guerin (Pittsburgh).
And then there are the guys who have overcome injuries, illnesses, or troubling personal circumstances. Players such as Erik Johnson (St. Louis) and Jonas Gustavsson (Toronto), as well as the three finalists, fall into this category.
Past winners of the award have been chosen for a variety of reasons. In the first few decades of the award being presented, recipients were chosen for straightforward reasons such as leadership, dedication, perseverance, or simple longevity.
The trend in recent seasons is that the Masterton is awarded to the player who has experiences the most gruesome injury, the most awful illness, or the most terrible personal circumstance, but managed to continue playing.
The last dozen or so winners have had to overcome such varied afflictions as Hodgkin's lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, bacterial meningitis, brain injuries, eye injuries, testicular cancer, reconstructive knee surgery, fragmented discs, chronic myelogenous leukemia, alcoholism, and most tongue-tyingly, eosinophila myalgia syndrome.
Recipient's stories are often enough to make you cry. There are several players who were forced to retire due to injury or illness. Tampa Bay's John Cullen, for example, missed all of 1997-98 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He underwent intensive chemotherapy, had a bone marrow transplant, and at one point had his heart stop due to complications and a decimated immune system. Nonetheless, he returned to play 4 games in 1998-1999, before deciding to retire. He was the 1999 Masterton winner.
In today's NHL, Cullen's story is typical for a Masterton finalist. Consider this season's determined triumvirate. Kurtis Foster broke his femur in 2008 as a member of the Minnesota Wild while racing back to retrieve an iced puck. Rods were inserted to rebuild the bone. He missed the rest of 07-08 and all but 10 games of 08-09. The fact that he returned to lead Tampa Bay defense in scoring earned him the nomination.
Ortmeyer suffers from a hereditary blood-clotting disorder, and has to inject a blood thinner directly into his stomach each day. Without the medication he would be at risk of bleeding to death from even minor wounds. Injuries leading to clotting problems have nearly caused him to retire early twice already.
Jose Theodore looks like a lock to win this year's Masterton. His two month old son, Chase, died during the summer from complications resulting from his premature birth. Despite this (speaking as the father of a young son) completely world-shattering event, Theodore had his best season in nearly a decade, rejuvenated his career, and founded a charity to raise money for the hospital that Chase was never able to leave.
Hockey is hockey. Health and family are something else entirely. Books of poetry could be written about what these people go through. No one would plan to aim for the Masterton Trophy at the beginning of their career. And all it means at the end is, "I didn't give up. I kept trying."