By: Emmet Mahon
In 1968, the NHL established the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, named for the only
player to die from direct injuries sustained in game action. It is awarded to the player who
“exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to
hockey”. Montreal’s Claude Provost won the first Masterton Trophy by “embodying the
definition of perseverance and dedication to hockey” throughout his 15-year career.
Each year every team nominates a player who they determine performed in the manner
and spirit of Bill Masterton. The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association selects the winner
through a vote of their membership. The Masterton Trophy is presented at the NHL Awards
Ceremony following the completion of the season. The award has evolved from recognizing
players who had battled through career threatening injuries or recognizing long time service to
the NHL to acknowledging players who have faced significant challenges away from the ice,
such as life-threatening illness, family tragedy and mental illness.
Two Penguins have won the Masterton Trophy. Lowell MacDonald won in 1972-73 after
overcoming severe ligament and cartilage damage to post 34 goals and 41 assists that season.
The other winner is obvious: Mario Lemieux in 1992-93. That season, Lemieux was diagnosed
with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he missed 24 games and still led the league in scoring with 160
points, earning the Art Ross Trophy. He also won the Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP), and Lester
B. Pearson Award (Most Outstanding Player) that year. His triumphant return to the ice the same
day as receiving his final radiation treatment on March 2, 1993, is part of NHL lore. He boarded
a private plane to Philadelphia to join the Penguins in time for their game against the Flyers. He
potted a goal in the contest. The always warm and fuzzy Philadelphia crowd treated him as a
While MacDonald and Lemieux are the only two Penguins to win the Masterton Trophy
while members of the organization, there have been several winners who have logged time in the
black and gold. Other winners with familiar names included Phil Kessel, John Cullen and Brian
Boyle who all conquered cancer to return to the ice. Former Penguin center Dominic Moore was
hailed in 2013-14 after returning from an 18-month sabbatical to care for his wife Katie who
fought, and eventually succumbed, to a rare form of cancer. Penguin legend Jaromir Jagr won the
Masterton Trophy after the 2015-16 season honoring his long and prolific career, including
scoring 66 points that season for the Florida Panthers at the age of 44.
Unlike other trophies that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on statistics, the Masterton
Trophy winner often is the result of displaying physical, mental and emotional toughness. When
the three finalists for this year’s award are announced during the playoffs this spring, one name
who has displayed all three in abundance this season will be included, Penguins defenseman Kris
Letang is famous for his conditioning. He is annually among the league leaders in time on
ice and points scored by a defenseman. In 2020 he was named captain of the Metropolitan
Division All Star squad. Of course, he has also been instrumental in the Penguins winning three
Stanley Cups. His on-ice excellence is well documented. This season his dedication and
perseverance has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The first obstacle thrown in Letang’s way occurred on November 28, when he suffered a
stroke. Media reports labeled it a minor stroke. Many medical professionals will tell you there is
no such thing as a minor stroke. You either have one or you don’t. The prospect of returning
quickly to any normal activities for anyone, including an athlete in peak physical condition,
would be daunting and unlikely. Letang returned to the ice on December 10. Not only did he
return in less than two weeks, but also did not ease himself back into competition, blocking three
shots and registering a team high 22:14 of ice time. Such an aggressive return would be
remarkable. For Letang, it was not unprecedented. In 2014, he also suffered an in-season stroke.
While that recovery was longer, he did rejoin his teammates and produced at an elite level.
Letang would remain in his usual spot on the top defensive pairing for nearly three weeks
before the next obstacle as placed in front of him. On December 28, he was felled with an
undisclosed lower body injury. That injury would force him to miss the Winter Classic against
the Boston Bruins on January 2. However, that would not be the most heartbreaking incident of
the day for Letang. That morning, he learned that his father, Claude Foquet, had passed away in
Montreal. Letang immediately left the team to be with his family. For all the cardiac issues,
broken bones and bruises he has endured in his career, that day was the most painful. But true to
his warrior spirit, his lower body injury healed, and he was back with the Penguins on January 24
to face a Florida Panthers team quickly closing in on them for the final Eastern Conference
playoff spot. Like his previous return, he went full bore. He was second to Jeff Petry’s 26:53 of
ice time, putting in an impressive 26:29. He dominated the score sheet. Playing determined and
passionate, he scored two goals and added two assists. His final goal, an overtime power play
blast, proved to be the difference. Script writers would have been incredulous. From the reaction
of his teammates, it was hard to determine who was happier for his success.
Letang’s place among the best in the game has rarely been in question, perhaps only
outside of Pittsburgh. His production will have him garnering Hall of Fame consideration after
his playing days. This season has demonstrated that he has an elite passion for the game and
dedication matched by few. When the 2022-2023 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner is
announced, if any name other than Kris Letang is uttered, it would be a travesty.