The Masterton Trophy is all about perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. It's basically the feel-good award of the NHL, but often given due to circumstances you wish weren't the case. Named for Bill Masterton, who died due to injuries sustained while playing, it marks incredible odds a player has had to overcome.
Some are more meaningful than others. Devan Dubnyk won last season, but he basically won because he overcame having to play for the Edmonton Oilers. The New York Rangers' Dominic Moore won in 2014... because he returned to the NHL following his wife's death.
One of those is much more sobering than the other. The Masterton can go to players succeeding purely within a hockey space, but the harsh realities of real life infringe on it a lot of the time. Become the trophy's story, in most circumstances.
Sometimes it's a combination of both. That's the case with Mats Zuccarello, whom the Rangers' PHWA chapter nominated for the award. And really, there was no other choice.
Hockey is a beautiful sport, but it's also a dangerous one, as Zuccarello can well attest to. He played in just five playoff games last season after suffering a slapshot to the head - one that left him with brain damage he may never fully recover from. His speech has been inhibited, but at its worst he was left completely unable to talk. Carl Hagelin and Derick Brassard visited him and ended up crying. He was the talk of the Rangers' off-season, from the moment it was announced just how bad things were to his going to Tanzania for Right to Play and playing in his own charity game in Norway.
And then, he came back. For real. Zuccarello returned to the NHL for the 2015-16 season, and he hasn't missed a game. He's scored 24 goals and 57 points along the way: tied with Brassard for the lead in team scoring, and just behind him to be second on the Rangers in goals.
So it's not even just that Zuccarello came back - a feat in and of itself - but that he came back to light the Rangers on fire and lead them through this season that currently sees them sitting second in the Eastern Conference standings. He came back, and is on the verge of having a career season.
Zuccarello already had to overcome a lot just to make the NHL to begin with. He's of smaller stature, he was never drafted. But the Rangers saw something in him and brought him on board - and he kept pushing, kept working, and became a regular.
And then life asked him to overcome even more. And he did.
Zuccarello doesn't need to win the Masterton Trophy to be recognized for all he's done this season. But there isn't quite anybody else out there more deserving.