Today, Morgan Rielly was announced as the Toronto Professional Hockey Writer's Association’s Masterton nominee. Could a case be built, however, that Auston Matthews is a better nominee?
Yesterday I had a discussion with a Tampa Bay Lightning writer, Erik Erlendsson, about why the Tampa chapter chose Steven Stamkos as Tampa's nominee. "I am surprised you didn't wait until next season," I said to him, "This season he hasn't shown that he's 'come back' from anything yet."
"It's not a comeback player of the year award," Erlendsson responded. "[Stamkos's] nomination has nothing to do with whether he plays again this season or not. [The Masterton Trophy has] got the knock of being a comeback player award, which we as PHWA are trying to steer away from. [Jaromir] Jagr won it last year."
Perhaps this shift in the award's philosophy was also at work in Toronto. Kristen Shilton wrote TSN's piece about the nomination, and she has the definition of the trophy posted below her lead: "The Masterton Trophy is awarded each season to the NHL player who best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." As Erlendsson pointed out, Jagr is a perfect fit for the award, showing perseverance and dedication in surviving the inevitable decline of age to continue to play hockey.
The award is no longer about overcoming all odds to play hockey -- it's no longer a heroic comeback story. Rielly was chosen because he exhibits qualities of perseverance, such as recovering from a draft-year injury and falling in draft order, only to steadfastly make a name for himself in the NHL. Brian Burke told Shilton, “When we researched him that’s what kept coming up…this kid never viewed the injury as a setback – he viewed it as a challenge. He met that challenge with legendary workouts he did to rehab. The way he attacked [his] recovery was impressive.”
Stamkos was chosen by Tampa Bay, not because he came back from an injury to play hockey again, but because each time he's had a health setback he's turned his mind toward rehabilitation and worked hard to get back again. The final part of the heroic tale, the one where Stamkos steps onto the ice as a player for his team, has not yet been written -- in this definition of the Masterton, it doesn't have to be.
But do the Leafs have a better nominee for Masterton than Rielly?
The rationale for choosing Rielly is sound. But it could be argued that Matthews has exhibited more of this quality of perseverence than Rielly has. For example, is there anything more difficult than fighting your entire childhood environment for even a small patch of ice?
Matthews is a Mexican-American from Arizona, whose mother worked several jobs to pay for his hockey career, and at times was unable to travel with his team due to lack of funds. The US National Team Development Program managed to find him and help him play, but the sheer odds of a Mexican-American kid from Arizona making it to the NHL, let alone as first-overall pick, shows an enormous amount of perseverance and dedication to hockey.
Fear the Fin recently published an article about the racism faced by Josh Ho-Sang throughout his hockey career. Ho-Sang is a mixed-race black, Chinese, and Jewish player, and has always had to fight for recognition in a country that refused to extend him an invitation to World Junior Championship camp despite his scoring ability.
Add hockey’s cultural resistance to nontraditional players to a city relatively devoid of hockey opportunity, and you get enormous amounts of adversity; enough to turn off almost all of the Mexican-American hockey players from entering the league. Except for a tiny handful.
To quote from James Mirtle's post-draft piece:
[W]hat makes Matthews’s story exceptional is that growing up in a city with few rinks and little hockey history never held him back. He took a road never travelled, learning the game in creative, new ways. And it paid off.
“It’s a pretty amazing story,” said Mike DeAngelis, director of hockey for Arizona’s Junior Coyotes program. “How does a kid become that good, the best teenager in the world, and ready to step into the NHL, coming out of that type of development schedule? The word outlier comes to mind.”
Matthews has not just faced adversity, he has used creative means to turn this adversity into opportunities to become an exceptional player. When he was not given a full sheet of ice to learn at the pee-wee level, he turned this adversity into outstanding puck-handling skill. When there was a dearth of skating skills coaches in Arizona, Matthews’ family talked Boris Dorozhenko into moving to Arizona to teach their son his unorthodox methods, and Matthews’ skating became all the greater for it. There were countless issues of finance and program access, but each roadblock somehow left Matthews a better player.
What makes Rielly more eligible for a Masterton than Matthews? Is it years played in the league? Is it the desire to save up Matthews' nomination for a year where he can sweep everyone before him?
Because surely a decade and a half of fighting all odds to become one of the handful of Mexican-American NHL players shows more perseverance than overcoming an injury years ago.