Stephen Johns Nominated For Masterton Trophy

Each season, local chapters of the PHWA nominate a player that “exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.”

The Dallas chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced today that Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns is the nominee for the annual Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The Masterton trophy is given to the player each year that best exemplifies “the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” The trophy honors the late Bill Masterton, the only NHL player to die from injuries sustained in a game. First awarded in 1968, the Masterton Trophy is under the trusteeship of the PHWA. Masterton was a member of the Minnesota North Stars team (which would later relocate and become the Dallas Stars) when he tragically passed.

Johns’ nearly 22-month road to returning to the NHL after dealing with post-traumatic headaches and post-concussion syndrome more than displays these qualities.

It wasn’t an easy return for the 28-year old defenseman. There is no set timeline for recovering from post-traumatic headaches. In fact, there was no assurance that he would ever recover from this condition, or even be able to return to the highest level of hockey.

Johns was always supposed to be a steadying force for the Stars’ top four on the blueline. Along with Esa Lindell, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen, the Stars appeared to be set with a relatively cost-controlled, young, mobile defense. Instead, Johns missed nearly two years of training camps, games, playoffs, training, and practices, instead being asked question after question about his return from fans and media alike. All of this in the prime years of his career.

The Stars deserve a lot of credit for being patient with this unpredictable condition. They never pushed for Johns to return before he was ready to, something you don’t always see when it comes to head injuries in this sport. They also ensured that the media was kept far from him, limiting any outside pressures for a return to play that could come from reporting the downs that plagued his ups throughout his recovery.

When Johns was ready to return, he was quickly assigned to the AHL for a conditioning stint. It was anticipated that he would likely need the maximum three games allowed on such an assignment to get up to speed, maybe more. The Stars could have (and likely would have) gotten a dispensation from the league to give him two more conditioning games than the standard allotment, given how much time he missed between NHL action.

I was in the building the night of his return to full-speed hockey action in Cedar Park January 11th when the Texas Stars took on the Toronto Marlies. Immediately, Johns was head and shoulders above the AHL prospects, scoring a goal and registering three assists in a game where he played more limited minutes. A week after, Johns was up in the NHL making his return to a game he sometimes wondered he’d ever get to play again. Less than two weeks after that, he was scoring his first NHL goal in nearly two years.

Stephen Johns was officially back as a top-four blueliner for the Dallas Stars.

Johns would appear in 17 NHL games before the league was put on pause and, eventually, ended. He registered two goals and three assists in those games, a pace that would have seen him net 20 points over the course of the games played by the Stars had he been able to go from day one.

The hype for the Masterton Trophy is likely for Connor McDavid, who suffered a myriad of injuries in the last game of the previous season when he went into a post.

Along with fully tearing his posterior cruciate ligament, McDavid also tore the medial and lateral menisci, fully tore the popliteus muscle, tore the posterior capsule, and sustained a tibial plateau fracture. Surgery to fix all of that would have forced him to miss an entire season with no assurances he would be back up to 100% when he did return. His recovery using non-surgical methods and instead an intensive physical therapy regime was even turned into a massive documentary.

Every year, there are many guys deserving of the award nominated by hockey clubs across the league. We’ll have to see if Johns’ lesser-known, but equally impressive, story dealing with a wild unknown nets him any recognition. Even if the league as a whole decides not to give him the Masterton Trophy, though, Johns appears to be ready to be that integral piece for the Stars as they turn their attention to the playoffs (whenever they come back).

The hardware would just be an outward expression of that journey back.