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Case Closed: Kris Letang Deserves the Masterton

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

returning hero.


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.


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.

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