On the Masterton: Happy for Lappy, but he wasn’t the best man

Any hockey fan worth his or her salt knows the opening scene of the seminal 1977 George Roy Hill-Paul Newman flick “Slap Shot,” where goaltender Denis Lemieux is explaining to host Jim Carr and the presumed television audience what certain penalties are and how bad you should feel once you get caught committing them.

Basically, you follow the rules and everything should work out all right. If you don’t, you sit in the penalty box and…well…you can quote me the rest.

Not that Ian Laperriere or the selection committee for the Bill Masterton Trophy should be locked up in a 6-by-10-foot cubicle surrounded by plexiglass and made to sit and ponder their predicament, but the most deserving man didn’t win the 2011 edition of the honor last night in Las Vegas.

The rationale is simple: Unlike every other winner since the award was created in 1968, Laperriere did not qualify for one of the major components of victory — he failed to play in even one regular-season game this past year.

Even in cases of extreme duress, such as the serious injuries to Pittsburgh’s Lowell McDonald (1973), Charlie Simmer (1986), Gord Kluzak (1990), Mark Fitzpatrick’s (1992) life-threatening disease, John Cullen’s (1999) return from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and Gary Roberts (1996), Tony Granato (1997), Bryan Berard (2004) and Phil Kessel’s (2007) battles with various ailments, the common thread is that each and every one returned to play.

What’s more, with the exception of Cullen, the majority of players on the above list went on to continue productive careers.

Come to think of it, that’s another strike against Laperriere’s win — the fact that his career is probably now over due to the multiple instances of misfortune he suffered during the Flyers’ memorable 2010 playoff run.

Post-concussion syndrome is nothing to mess with, folks, but if that’s the case, let’s retroactively give the award to about a half-dozen other players who had a positive impact on the sport and the community. Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff Beukeboom and Adam Deadmarsh never won, did they?

I also wonder what this means in terms of what Bobby Clarke (1972) and Tim Kerr (1989), went through to earn their Mastertons. Granted, a trophy which has been around for 40-something years will inevitably fall prey to the prevailing sentiment, but back then, there doesn’t appear to have been this idea of having to be Mr. Sunshine with the media. It was an honor bestowed at times on the player judged to have overcome significant obstacles to playing the game. Hockey, and nothing else.

Clarke got his because people were just amazed that a man who lived with diabetes all his life could have such success in a major professional sports. Almost 20 years later, Kerr won his because he recovered from potentially debilitating knee and shoulder injuries to continue his high-scoring ways. 

This is not to suggest that the Masterton now merely serves as an honor bestowed on a player who overcomes the disease-of-the-week, but the other two finalists — Ray Emery of the Ducks and Daymond Langkow of the Flames — endured injuries far worse than Laperriere but managed to have productive returns.

As I wrote in last night’s story upon the Masterton announcement:

Emery  returned to the NHL late this season and helped the Ducks in their push
for  a playoff spot after a career-threatening injury. He underwent bone-graft
surgery  last April to  repair a deteriorated ball joint in his right hip, the
result  of a disease called avascular necrosis, which interrupts blood flow to
the  area  and causes cells  to die. After  months of rehabilitation he signed
with  Anaheim as  a free agent on February  7 and had a record of 7-2-0 with a
2.28 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 10 games.

Langkow  suffered a fractured vertebra on March 21, 2010 when he was struck in the  neck  with the full force  of a hard shot  by Calgary teammate Ian White. After a lengthy  rehab  process that was  twice stopped because of recurring problems, Langkow  was cleared to  play and took the ice on April 1, recording an assist with a plus-two rating in Calgary’s 3-2 win at St. Louis.

Emery’s case, I think, is strengthened because his “perseverance and dedication” to the game included his being cut by the Senators in 2008, exiled to the KHL that following season, and a subsequent return to the Flyers two years ago with a renewed attitude before the aforementioned hip issues prematurely ended his tenure here.

As for Langkow…brother is lucky he’s walking again. Isn’t that enough to turn the tide in his favor?

Nonetheless, Hockeybuzz.com Philly writer Bill Meltzer is correct, in that the Masterton is an award that is often bestowed to players who are in media and population centers, and to those who are a bit more scribe friendly.

Given Emery’s checkered history with authority figures before his unplanned Russian vacation and Langkow’s reported surly demeanor at times, of course Laperriere shines above the rest.

It simply didn’t matter that the 37-year-old Quebec native didn’t log one single second on NHL ice — but it absolutely should have.

That really shouldn’t be the thrust of the award in the first place, but when you’re dealing with a professional writers’ association which can wield significant political influence, you get what you get.

Though I can think of only one better going-away gift for a player and man who exemplifies the essence of Flyers hockey (tall, silver, bowl-shaped at the top), and I’m happy that Lappy was recognized, I can’t help but think the NHL got this one wrong.