Sunday morning, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. Vacation pictures, food, a few selfies here and there—and then the NHL’s official page. This particular post announced the three finalists for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” The faces of Jordan Staal, Brian Boyle and Roberto Luongo appear on my screen.
As is the instinct in the digital age in which we live, I tap on the comments section. What I see leaves me dumbfounded.
I saw fans from around the league arguing and bantering over who deserves the award more, flooding social media (and not just Instagram) to make their case for who they thought should win. How did this come about? The tribalism of NHL fans - my team is better than yours and, ergo, my player should win the Masterton - has come to the forefront with this year’s nominations and it hurts the premise of the award.
Staal, Boyle and Luongo each showed outstanding qualities that exemplifies the best in humanity. Hockey is just a game and each of these players put the sport in the forefront while dealing with factors in their background. To be able to witness this kind of courage is truly inspiring and heart-warming.
How can this award be up for debate? How can the award itself somehow determine who persevered the most (best? Who knows) through tragedy? It seems wrong for fans to want anyone to “win” this award; the concept seems barbaric. Staal went through an unthinkable tragedy, one that leaves a welt in your stomach when thinking about it. My family went through it and it may have factored into each of your lives in one way or another.
Left off the nominations but equally deserving is Ottawa Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson who also lost a child and showed up to the rink with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Karlsson’s heartbreak was revealed after voting had finished and he wasn’t included in nominations as a result.
Not to be forgotten in these nominations of Boyle and Luongo are the struggles in which each of them went through. Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia before the season even began. Despite his body breaking down internally, Boyle played 69 games en route to helping a playoff-starved New Jersey Devils play a competitive series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Luongo suffered multiple injuries but remained a steady, calm force in his community in the wake of the unthinkable Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
It’s time to change the perception and narrative around the award. Last year’s winner, Craig Anderson, left his team to take care of his wife who was diagnosed with cancer. Dominic Moore won the Masterton after his wife passed away. Josh Harding, the 2013 recipient, won it after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Wither Bryan Bickell?)
Understandably, the players deserve to be recognized for their perseverance, but one could make a case that the Masterton as currently awarded could make players relive periods in their lives they’d might rather forget.
Each of this year’s finalists, and really each of the 31 team nominees, is worthy of recognition for their perseverance and dedication to hockey. But note that the Masterton criteria says nothing about persevering and remaining dedicated to hockey through off-ice situations. By the letter of the criteria, Jaromir Jagr should have the award every year of the past five or six, rather than just once; who could be more dedicated to hockey than a player who was drafted before half the league was born and is still playing?
In the United States, we glorify athletes. They are treated like icons and looked up to as role models. At the end of the day, they’re just like us and experience what each of us go through. The nominees this year went through tougher factors than imaginable.
Perhaps it is time for the NHL to remove the award as a whole or use it more as an opportunity in which to raise awareness. In the case of Harding and Anderson, setting up an MS or cancer research fund in their honor would serve more as an honor than a piece of hardware could. If the trophy continues to be awarded, eliminate the horserace aspect and simply have the league office select an honoree, along the lines of an Oscars lifetime-achievement award.
But it’s the responsibility of the fans to change their mindset and perception when voicing their opinions regarding this award, especially for this year’s finalists. All nominees are worthy, and being a fan shouldn’t cloud your judgment.