The Bill Masterton Trophy is an award that is under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association, and it is handed out annually to a National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.
Named after Bill Masterton, an NHL player that passed away as a direct result of injuries sustained during a game, it is an award that recognises those players that come back from a career or life-threatening illness.
As such, it’s only fitting that players that have been diagnosed with cancer and come back to the NHL make the honour roll over the years.
Mario Lemieux, one of the legends of the game fondly known as “Super Mario” by Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans was playing at an otherworldly during the 1992-93 season until he learned that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His diagnosis forced him to abandon the second half of the season to undergo treatment.
However, on the day of his last radiation treatment, “Super Mario” underscored his moniker by grabbing a flight to join his team for their last regular-season game with the Philadelphia Flyers. Lemieux scored a goal and an assist to the delight of his fans in a 5-4 loss to the Flyers.
Mario went on to play a further eight more seasons with his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins and finished his career with 1,723 points in 915 games. He was nominated for the Bill Masterton award at the end of the 1992-93 season, which he won in a landslide.
A few years after Lemieux’s ordeal with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, John Cullen of the Tampa Bay Lightning was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which ended his 1997-98 season. Although Cullen attempted a brief comeback in the NHL in 1998, which was met with delight from fans who gave him a roaring welcome, a few games into the season it was evident that he was but a shadow of the player he used to be. Cullen retired later in the year. In recognition of his attempted comeback in 1998, Cullen was awarded the Bill Masterton award.
Before Cullen was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, he played with the Pittsburgh Penguins and, even, featured for the better part of the 1990-91 season, the year the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. Alas, in March of that year, the team traded away Cullen in a blockbuster trade with the then Hartford Whalers. Former Pittsburgh teammate, Phil Bourque, later said it “broke his heart” that Cullen was not able to share in that championship.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Eastern Conference finals and tipped as one of the favourites across sports betting platforms to lift the Stanley Cup in 2020.
Saku Koivu, who spent the bulk of his career with the Montreal Canadiens, was diagnosed after six seasons in the NHL with Burkitt’s lymphoma in 2001, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and missed nearly the entire 2001-02 season.
Following Koivu’s diagnosis, both Mario Lemieux and John Cullen reached out to the Fin in support. Not unlike Lemieux, Koivu made an astonishing comeback the same year for the last few games of the regular season. Upon his return, he was met with a thunderous standing ovation that lasted eight minutes. Koivu helped the Canadiens reach the playoffs, where they advanced into the second round. Koivu was awarded the Bill Masterton award for his incredible resilience following the 2002 playoffs.
In 2008, Koivu went to play for the Anaheim Ducks where he spent five seasons before returning to the Canadiens in 2013. Koivu retired in 2014 after playing 18 seasons.
Phil Kessel missed 12 games because of testicular cancer during the 2006-07 season when he played for the Boston Bruins. He received the Bill Masterton Trophy for overcoming cancer and making a successful comeback. Kessel is still active in the NHL, playing for the Arizona Coyotes. Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion having won both with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 season.