Growing up in Winnipeg, Bill Masterton had a knack for scoring goals and was often among the league leaders in that category. At 17 he joined the St. Boniface Canadiens and in 22 responded with 23 goals and 49 points in 1955-56. Masterton and the Canadiens played in the Memorial Cup playoffs, where he tallied eight points in six games but it was the OHA's Toronto Marlboros who successfully defended their national junior amateur title.
In the fall of 1957, Masterton enrolled at the University of Denver, where he played hockey while getting an education. In four years with the school team he was one of the club's top offensive weapons, averaging more than two points per game in each of his last three seasons. Masterton helped the school to win an impressive three NCAA national titles, in 1958, 1960 and again in his senior year in 1961, when he was named the most valuable player of the entire NCAA tournament.
Following graduation, Masterton was hopeful of landing a professional job in hockey, but with just six teams in the NHL, cracking a team's lineup was next to impossible. In 1961-62 Masterton joined the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the EPHL, a minor pro league. Among some of Masterton's more notable teammates included future NHLers Keith McCreary, Jim Roberts, Barclay Plager, Terry Harper, Dallas Smith and goalies Cesare Maniago and Ernie Wakely.
Masterton toiled patiently in the minors for six years, mostly in the USHL before getting a shot at the NHL when the league expanded to 12 teams for the 1967-68 campaign. The expansion Minnesota North Stars signed him to a free-agent contract, which was the thrill of a lifetime for Masterton, who had for so long dreamed about one day making it to the best hockey league in the world. But, after just 38 games in the league, tragedy struck. During a North Stars' game against another expansion team, the California Seals, on January 13, 1968, Masterton fell awkwardly to the ice, hitting his head. He died two days later of massive head injuries, becoming the first player to die as a direct result of an injury during an NHL game. He was just 29.
Masterton is forever immortalized by the league, with a trophy named in his memory. It is awarded annually to the NHL player who best personifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey as voted upon by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Bobby Clarke, Serge Savard, Mario Lemieux, Cam Neely and John Cullen are just a few of the big names that have been honoured with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in past years.