Opinion

Winnipegger Bill Masterton was just 38 games into his NHL career when he suffered a devastating head injury in a January 1968 game. The Minnesota North Stars forward died in hospital two days later at the age of 29, the only player in league history to lose his life as a direct result of an on-ice incident.

Winnipegger Bill Masterton was just 38 games into his NHL career when he suffered a devastating head injury in a January 1968 game. The Minnesota North Stars forward died in hospital two days later at the age of 29, the only player in league history to lose his life as a direct result of an on-ice incident.

Masterton's legacy in the sport is two-fold. First, his tragic passing sparked a debate about helmets which eventually led to them becoming compulsory. Secondly, the NHL immediately introduced an award in his honour, given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

It may not carry the same prestige as the Hart, Norris, Vezina and Calder, but the Masterton is no less distinguished given what it represents. Bobby Ryan won it last year, working his way back after taking a leave to deal with alcohol abuse. Robin Lehner earned it the year before, speaking out publicly about his battle with mental illness.

<p>Winnipeg Jets goalie Eric Comrie is the team's nominee for the 2021 Bill Masterton trophy.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets goalie Eric Comrie is the team's nominee for the 2021 Bill Masterton trophy.

Local chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, of which I am a member, nominate a player in all 31 NHL markets, then vote on the entire field to determine the eventual winner. When it came to picking a member of the Winnipeg Jets organization this year, I kept coming back to one name. I was pleased my colleagues saw it the same way and Eric Comrie is getting the recognition he richly deserves.

Comrie, 25, checks off the boxes of what the Masterton is all about. And the 2013 second-round draft pick of the Jets has experienced a roller-coaster of events and emotions recently that would test the mettle of anyone.

Waived by Winnipeg following training camp in the fall of 2019 and claimed by Arizona. Sent to the AHL in Tucson. Waived by the Coyotes and claimed by Detroit. Made his Red Wings debut against the Jets. Waived by Detroit and reclaimed by Winnipeg, where he eventually finished the season with the Manitoba Moose before the pandemic brought the year to a screeching halt.

"It’s been a whirlwind moving around a lot in all this stuff. But there is a lot going on in the world right now. I’m still very lucky and very fortunate to play the game I love and be able to work." — Eric Comrie

This year has been an even wilder ride. Waived by the Jets following training camp in January. Claimed by New Jersey. Forced to spend time in quarantine. Assigned to the Devils taxi squad. Called up by the big club and won his debut game, only to have most of his teammates test positive for COVID-19 as part of a major outbreak. Back to quarantine, where his girlfriend also got sick. Put on waivers. Reclaimed by Winnipeg. More isolation and loneliness in the form of quarantine.

And, over the past three months, he's mainly been parked on the Jets taxi squad, save for a quick stint back to the Moose where he recently passed Cory Schneider to set the all-time franchise record for wins by a goaltender. Now, a memorable Monday in which he was named a Masterton finalist and dressed for Winnipeg as a backup to Laurent Brossoit against the Vancouver Canucks, with Connor Hellebuyck given a night off.

"It’s hard to describe because I love the game so much and this really shows that you guys are noticing that I love the game. That means a lot to me because I truly love the game more than anything you can name," said Comrie.

In 2019, Comrie was picked up on waivers by the Detroit Red Wings and, as fate would have it, would play his first game for the team against the Winnipeg Jets.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/FRED GREENSLADE

In 2019, Comrie was picked up on waivers by the Detroit Red Wings and, as fate would have it, would play his first game for the team against the Winnipeg Jets.

The Edmonton product credits his father, Bill Comrie, who founded The Brick, for teaching him the value of hard work, and his mother, Roxanne Huisman, for his positive approach. He also leans on his older two half-brothers, Paul Comrie and Mike Comrie, who both played in the NHL and his sister, Cathy, a psychologist. And he said his partner, Haley, has been a pillar throughout the process.

"It’s been a whirlwind moving around a lot in all this stuff. But there is a lot going on in the world right now. I’m still very lucky and very fortunate to play the game I love and be able to work. There are a lot of people who aren’t in that same situation right now. I’m looking at myself thinking I’m very positive and very thankful that I’m able to do this. It’s a tough time in the world right now. As a hockey player, we understand that we’re very fortunate and very lucky," said Comrie.

BILL MASTERTON TROPHY FINALISTS

(Winner will be voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and announced later this spring)

Anaheim Ducks: David Backes

Arizona Coyotes: Phil Kessel

Boston Bruins: Kevan Miller

Buffalo Sabres: Dustin Tokarski

(Winner will be voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and announced later this spring)

Anaheim Ducks: David Backes

Arizona Coyotes: Phil Kessel

Boston Bruins: Kevan Miller

Buffalo Sabres: Dustin Tokarski

Calgary Flames: Milan Lucic

Carolina Hurricanes: Jordan Staal

Colorado Avalanche: Valeri Nichushkin

Columbus Blue Jackets: Zac Dalpe

Chicago Blackhawks: Andrew Shaw

Dallas Stars: Roope Hintz

Detroit Red Wings: Danny DeKeyser

Edmonton Oilers: Mike Smith

Florida Panthers: Chris Driedger

Los Angeles Kings: Matt Roy

Minnesota Wild: Matt Dumba

Montreal Canadiens: Corey Perry

Nashville Predators: Pekka Rinne

New Jersey Devils: Scott Wedgewood

New York Islanders: Casey Cizikas

New York Rangers: Colin Blackwell

Ottawa Senators: Nick Paul

Philadelphia Flyers: Oskar Lindblom

Pittsburgh Penguins: Casey DeSmith

St. Louis Blues: Vladimir Tarasenko

San Jose Sharks: Patrick Marleau

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell

Vancouver Canucks: Tyler Motte

Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury

Washington Capitals: Zdeno Chara

Winnipeg Jets: Eric Comrie

The fact he keeps finding his way back to Winnipeg is no coincidence. The organization loves him, seeing him as the perfect fit for a No. 3 goaltender. It's a tough line of work with the No. 1 being a Vezina winner in Hellebuyck. And Brossoit has essentially blocked his full-time path to the NHL, which is why he keeps getting put on waivers due to his tenure. But you'll never hear Comrie complain, and he's been a terrific mentor to some of the younger prospects in the organization including goaltender Mikhail Berdin.

"He's unrelenting in his positivity. With everything that he's been through this year. It's the way that he handled his every day here. He'll stay on the ice as long as you want. He's just an incredibly positive person," Jets coach Paul Maurice said Monday. "In a most difficult situation he would have handled it and been a leader in that with our extra players. Because that's a tough job those guys have this year. He's out there every day going so hard that those guys are certainly drawn to him. He's just a marvelous young man."

Not playing has been the hardest part, especially since Comrie has always been a workhorse. From his days in junior appearing in 60 games one season with Tri-City to his first two years with the Moose where he appeared in 97 combined games, he craves action. But the past two years have been a case of hurry up and wait for chances that aren't coming around very often.

This season, Comrie was claimed off waivers by the New Jersey Devils and would go on to win the first game he'd play for the team.

AP PHOTO/JEFFREY T. BARNES

This season, Comrie was claimed off waivers by the New Jersey Devils and would go on to win the first game he'd play for the team.

He had just three games with the Red Wings, four games with Tucson and 16 with the Moose last season. This season, it's been just that one game with New Jersey and four with the Moose, with the bulk of his time spent either in quarantine or on the Devils and Jets taxi squads. That's not a lot of hockey for a guy who still believes he can carve out a full-time role in the big leagues, but isn't getting the chance to really show it.

"You just have to approach it the same way I try to approach everything. Just day by day, respect the process, let the results take care of themselves. You have to understand this: if you work really hard every single day, you will get the benefit of the doubt and good things will happen to you," said Comrie. "That’s just my outcome, that’s the way I’ve looked at everything the whole time and that’s the outcome I will receive."

There was a good outcome on Monday for Comrie, who personifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. It truly couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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