The Bill Masterson Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL player who, in the eyes of the PHWA, best exemplifies "the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey." Every season around this time, every chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association nominates one player from its local NHL team for the award, and then at the end of the regular season, the PHWA collectively narrows the 30 nominees down to three finalists, then selects a winner.
Generally, the PHWA tends to focus on the "perseverance" part of the description, awarding the trophy to a player who has overcome something major. Past winners have included Penguin Lowell McDonald, for a 75-point season after suffering serious knee damage; Rod Gilbert, because he had come back from a major back injury; Mario Lemieux, because of that whole cancer thing; and Jose Theodore, who had a great season immediately following his son's death.
When not given to someone who overcame tragedy, the trophy usually goes to someone who has just generally been a standup guy for many season. It's gone to Jean Ratelle for "lifelong dedication to strong, clean hockey," Henri Richard for winning the Cup 11 times, Dave Taylor for playing all 17 seasons with the Kings, and Adam Graves for "all-around dedication to hockey." The whole list can be found on Wikipedia.
This season, the Rangers' nominee is Dan Girardi, presumably for "being a great defenseman despite Marc Staal's concussion." At the time of his nomination, I remember being excited for Girardi to be the Ranger who would lose the Masterson to Sidney Crosby this season. After all, there's no more natural choice than Crosby this year: he battled major concussion issues and a broken vertebra, came back midseason and was very impressive only to be taken back out of the lineup 8 games later, and finally returned near the end of the regular season in time for what will quite possibly be an impressive playoff push. Can you seriously think of a player in the league that has overcome adversity better than Crosby this year?
Well, apparently, the Pittsburgh chapter of the PHWA can, because they didn't even nominate him. In his place, they nominated intentional-career-ender Matt Cooke, for transforming his game, from one in which he attempts to elbow people in the head and knock them out of hockey forever all the time, into one in which he does his best to score goals as much as possible.
First of all, let me say that I wholeheartedly support this change. Cooke spent the better part 11 seasons in the league being destructive to the game of hockey, ending Marc Savard's career and attempting to end more than a few others. Season after season, he was a danger to the league because, despite suspension after suspension, he kept going out there and targeting heads in a way designed to injure them long-term. This season, he has not done that, at all. This is nothing short of fucking fantastic.
Mario Lemieux, who deserved the ire he got for whining to the press last season about the dangerous Islanders while continuing to employ Cooke himself, deserves just as much praise for sitting Cooke down and, apparently, explaining that if Cooke even thought about targeting a head this season, he would be immediately fired. Cooke's play was bad for hockey, bad for business, and bad for humanity, and the message seems to have sunk in. Good for Lemieux.
Additionally, some people are saying that Cooke himself can be used as a positive example to other hockey players. And I actually agree! If Matt Cooke - Matt Cooke, of all people! - can spend a season not giving people concussions on purpose, than so can anyone else. Which means that we don't need to have any patience for this kind of shit. If a player is actively attempting to injure people, we (by which I mean NHL coaches and GMs) can look at Matt Cooke, and we can see just how easy it is to not do that anymore. Then we can react accordingly (by firing them).
But let's be clear: this does not make Matt Cooke a hero. He does not deserve praise for, after 11 seasons of intentionally causing concussions, not doing that anymore. Almost everyone else in the league has spent their entire careers not doing that from the get-go. I'm happy for him personally, in the way that I'd be happy for a 30-year-old who finally finished potty training. But he doesn't deserve a damn medal for it.
The general sentiment seems to be that because Cooke made such a dramatic shift in his game, it's a big deal. And, again, it is a big deal. But the shift is only that dramatic because of how far he had to go. If Matt Cooke had only targeted one head once, and then went on to have the season he's having right now, no one would remark. It's because of how bad he was in the past that he gets this nomination now. That's essentially a reward for previous bad behavior. "Most improved" does not need to be an NHL Trophy.
I know that my handful of Pens fan friends who read this (I think there are like two?) will be tempted to consider it "typical Ranger fan hating on the Penguins." (Yes, Ranger fans, Pens fans think that how we feel about them counts as hatred. No one understands how we feel about the Devils and Islanders. It's OK.) But I really don't think it's out of line to be upset that a guy who did so much damage is being nominated for the Bill Masterson Trophy, just for not doing any more damage this season. Go look at that list of past winners I gave you earlier and tell me whose name belongs on it more: Sidney Crosby's or Matt Cooke's?