The Toronto Maple Leafs announced defenseman Paul Ranger would be their nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy this year. Each of the 30 NHL teams nominates one player for the trophy, which is awarded annually to the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.“
William Masterton was a Minnesota North Stars player who died after falling backwards and hitting his head off the ice in a January 1968 game against the Oakland Seals. The NHL first awarded the trophy named in his honour at the end of the season.
It seems fitting that Ranger would be named as the Leafs’ nominee, as he and Masterton’s hockey paths were somewhat similar. Masterton was an American Hockey League player who took a four-year layoff from professional hockey to earn his masters degree in finance. Masterton returned to hockey in 1967 and made the North Stars team out of training camp.
Ranger was a first pairing defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning before leaving hockey in 2009 for personal reasons. The Whitby, Ontario native signed with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL in 2012, and had a very successful season playing lots of minutes and acting as a mentor for the young Marlies’ squad. He signed a one-year, $1-million contract with the Leafs last offseason, and looked like he was ready to make his long-awaited comeback to the NHL.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as many of us envisioned for the 29-year-old. He struggled early on in the season, seeming a couple of steps too slow as he adapted to the pace of the best hockey league in the world. He spent much of the season as a healthy scratch before finally getting regular playing time in March, though only as the seventh defenseman.
However, Ranger seems to have improved significantly since the start of the season. He no longer seems too slow to keep up, but has become one of the few Leafs’ d-men who doesn’t struggle in his own end. He’s simply been a calm, cool-headed presence on the blue line. It’s just a shame he hasn’t been given more of an opportunity to get significant ice time.
One of my favourite Ranger memories so far was during Leafs training camp in 2013. After his first skate with an NHL team since the four-year layoff, Ranger broke down as he answered questions from reporters, obviously overcome with emotion. This Ranger quote is from a Bruce Arthur piece from the National Post from that time:
“It means everything,” Ranger said, blinking a little, standing in a busy concourse on the first day of training camp. “This is huge for me, and I know it. And I’m going to take it on. It’s a big part of my life. All I can say is I’m really excited for it, and I’m so emotional about it because it means so much to me.”
It’s been a joy to see Ranger make his return to professional hockey over the past couple of seasons, and we wish him nothing but the best as he continues his journey.