MINNEAPOLIS -- Bill Masterton stole the puck at center ice and headed for the Oakland Seals' goal. It was nearly 7:45 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1968, and in just a few seconds the dream would end.

Frustrated in his quest to secure a berth in the six-team National Hockey League, Masterton had retired from minor league hockey six years earlier at 23, earned a master's degree in finance and taken a management job with Honeywell Corp. in Denver.

But the NHL's decision to expand to 12 teams in 1967 had rekindled the dream, and soon it came true. He was the first player signed by the new Minnesota North Stars.

Now, living the dream, playing before thousands in the new Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., he flicked a backhand pass to right winger Wayne Connelly. As he turned to charge the goal, Masterton collided with onrushing defenseman Ron Harris.

"It was the strangest thing," remembers Wren Blair, the North Stars coach at the time. "After getting hit, he stood there motionless with an eerie look on his face for a second or two before falling."

The back of his head thudded on the ice. Teammate Davey Balon was the first to reach him. What he saw and Masterton's cryptic last words haunt him still.

"He looked at me," Balon recalls, "and he started to turn pale. But before he fell into unconsciousness, he looked up at me and said, 'Never again. Never again.' "

That was 20 years ago.

Masterton's brain was damaged so severely that he never regained consciousness. He died Jan. 15 in a Minneapolis hospital, the last game-related fatality in a major professional sport.

A little more than one month short of the 20th anniversary of the death, Brad Marsh was much luckier.

Marsh, a defenseman with the Philadelphia Flyers, was one of just a dozen or so NHL players who still did not wear a helmet. He was checked against a metal board support during a game Dec. 8 with the Boston Bruins at the Spectrum. He fell, hit his head and lapsed into unconsciousness. He escaped with a severe concussion and after an absece of a few games returned to the ice wearing a helmet.

Willi Plett of the Bruins saw Marsh fall and remembers: "I said to myself, 'You have to put on the helmet.' I mean, he could have died right there."

Helmets -- and controversy over their use -- have been a part of NHL hockey for more than 50 years. From time to time -- after Toronto's Ace Bailey nearly died of head injuries suffered in a fight with Boston's Eddie Shore in 1934, and after Masterton died -- the issue bubbled to the surface.

Although those incidents tended to create an immediate upsurge in the use of helmets, players gradually discarded them. And the NHL stood pat.

In fact, while the major league ignored the issue, most minor leagues and the governing bodies for intercollegiate and international hockey mandated helmets.

Finally, in 1979 -- more than a decade after a death that a helmet almost certainly would have prevented -- the NHL made them mandatory. But the league equivocated even then, ruling that any player who had signed a contract before June 1 of that year could refuse to wear one.

Had it been so inclined, the NHL could have required helmets immediately after Masterton died. The players, stunned by his death, seemed ready.

On Jan. 17, 1968, the NHL Players Association issued a statement urging the league to mandate helmets.

The Chicago Blackhawks' Stan Mikita, the league's MVP that year, and others began wearing helmets immediately after the death. Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull admitted that vanity alone had kept him from using a helmet and said that he would consider using one.

The NHL, though, remained unmoved.

Clarence Campbell, the imperious commissioner who refused to lend league sanction to a benefit game for Masterton's family, went so far as to term the death "a routine accident that could have happened in any hockey game . . . a normal hazard of the occupation."

Campbell further defended NHL policy, saying helmets "are optional now, and we think that is the best method of dealing with it."

Blair, the North Stars' coach, seemed to be trying to deflect attention from the issue when, a few days after his player's death, he suggested that an earlier injury might have been a contributing factor.

"Bill was hit in the head in the last few minutes of the Boston game on Dec. 30," Blair said at the time. "The players told me he was complaining for several days afterward of headaches."

An autopsy report issued on Jan. 27 squelched that possibility.

"There is no doubt that death was caused by the fall," said Hennepin County medical examiner John Coe's report. "There was no evidence of prior injury as a contributing cause . . . Of that there is no doubt."

Callous as it sounded, Campbell's attitude on helmets merely reflected a firmly held belief among league owners that their use was bad for the game.

"You wouldn't believe the paranoia among the owners at the time," said Alan Eagleson, then, as now, head of the NHLPA. "They felt helmets would create a deep recession in interest in the game, that fans wouldn't be able to recognize the players.

"To realize how much logic was implicit in that argument, all you have to do is realize that Wayne Gretzky is probably the best-known player in the history of the sport, and he has never stepped on the ice without a helmet."

An NHL spokesman said the league never had a stated policy against helmets but simply felt it was best to leave their use up to individual players.

Eagleson acknowledges that, even though the NHLPA publicly urged mandatory helmet use, there were many players within the organization who were as adamant as Campbell in their opposition.

"For whatever stupid reason, I simply refused to wear one," said Bill Goldsworthy, a teammate of Masterton. "Even Bill's death didn't do it. But finally, after my fifth concussion, I woke up in the hospital and said, 'I'm wearing a helmet from here on.' "

With its roots in the rugged, isolated towns of frigid Canada, hockey has always maintained a macho image. Violence was -- and in many ways is -- tolerated to a degree unmatched in any other sport.

"This whole macho thing was supposed to be a part of the sport, and no one questioned it," Golds-worthy said. "But it's nothing but a crock. The sport doesn't need it."

In his story on the game in which Masterton was fatally injured, Minnesota Tribune sportswriter John Gilbert described this peculiar aspect of the sport.

"The game was a display of violence as a part of NHL hockey," he wrote before even mentioning Masterton's injury. "Both teams seemed intent on establishing physical superiority from the start and the intensity increased steadily."

To understand just how deep-seated a tradition this was, consider what happened to the North Stars only three days after Masterton died -- the day of his funeral.

Blair, realizing that the tragedy had left his players in a funk, wondered how to snap them out of it. His solution? A brawl.

The Stars beat -- literally and figuratively -- the then-tame Flyers at the Met Center on Jan. 18.

"It was the first they showed any life {since the death}," Blair said in defense of his strategy. "Maybe I did let them go a bit . . . but it was the only way they were going to come out of it."