Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Unknown Superstar



Guyle Fielder as a Detroit Red Wing
(photo courtesy Jeff Obermeyer)
Guyle Fielder was a legend in the old Western Hockey League, where they called him  “Golden Guyle” and “Tom Fool,” after a lightning-fast 1953 Horse of the Year thoroughbred stallion. One of Fielder’s teammates gave him the nickname because no one could catch him in practice. After a while, they just called him “Tom.”

Born Guyle Abner Fielder in Potlach, Idaho on 11 November 1930 and raised in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, he quit school in Grade 8 to concentrate on hockey. At 16, he moved up to the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and played there for 2 seasons. Then he kicked it into passing gear with the Lethbridge Native Sons of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League in 1949-50 and 1950-51, collecting a combined total of 91 goals and 114 assists for 205 points in only 76 games. On 9 March 1951, he signed a pro contract with Chicago as a free agent, playing in 3 uneventful games for the Blackhawks.

Not a physically-imposing player at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Fielder, however, took to the ice for 22 solid minor pro seasons between 1951-1973, missing only a handful of games due to injuries. An incredible stick-handler, he  was an unselfish center, who would set up an offense like no one in hockey before or since. He played mostly with the Seattle Totems where he wore No 7 and had 10 seasons of 70 assists or more. He also had stints with 2 other Seattle teams, the Bombers and the Americans;  plus the New Westminster Royals, where he was Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year in 1951-52; the Salt Lake Golden Eagles; the Portland Buckaroos; and the St Louis Flyers, where he was American Hockey League Rookie of the Year in 1952-53. He was the Western Hockey League’s MVP six times, including four straight years from 1957-1960. A 12-time all-star at center, he won 9 scoring titles, and led in assists on 14 occasions. Five times he scored over 100 points and 11 times over 90 points. Lifetime, he finished with regular-season numbers of 1,929 points (438 goals and 1,491 assists) in 1,487 games. But when called up for different NHL spells with Boston, Chicago, and Detroit twice--totaling 9 regular season and 6 playoff games--he couldn’t net a single point.

Why couldn’t he cut it in the Big Show?

To Fielder it was simple. “I didn’t like the NHL’s dump-and-chase system,” the spry 83-year old Fielder told me from his home in Mesa, Arizona.  He preferred to hang onto the puck, until the time was right to snap off a crisp pass to an open teammate gunning for the net.  This irked the NHL coaches and GMs to no end. If you couldn’t make the play, you were supposed to dump it in. “If you have the puck, why give it away?” Fielder added. “That’s what a center is for. Make the plays and set up others.” It seems ironic that around the same time Fielder came on the scene, the NHL had accepted Montreal’s great defenseman Doug Harvey’s style of play, which was very similar to Fielder’s. Harvey loved to control the puck in his end and would entice opposition forecheckers to come and get him, then he’d fire off a pass to a streaking winger. It used to drive Harvey’s coaches--Dick Irvin and Toe Blake--bananas until they realized that he very seldom ever had the puck taken away from him.

Fielder’s last appearance in an NHL uniform followed his then-pro-record 122-point season in 1956-57 with Seattle. Boston had his rights at the time and traded them  for cash to Detroit, where Wings GM Jack Adams had Fielder center the top line with Gordie Howe and Johnny Wilson. “The Wings had an awful start,” Fielder recalled. Subsequently, he was sent down to the second line, then the third line and finally the bench. Six games into the season, the Wings weren’t even dressing him.

“I went to Jack Adams and he said everything was OK. He gave me another $500 to stay, this above the $7,500 minimum. But it wasn’t the money. I wanted to play. I loved the game. It might have been better if I’d not been on a line with Howe,” Fielder said. “Gordie was like me. Control the puck, and make the plays.  No point in both of us on the same line. I saw Adams again and told him I wanted to play, not sit on the bench.” Adams accommodated Fielder by returning him to Seattle where coach Keith Allen took him back. No questions. Fielder spent the rest of his career in the minors. But what a career.

To many hockey insiders, Jack Adams blew his handling of Fielder. Twice. He had Fielder’s rights 5 years before, following a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. With legendary center Sid Abel gone for the upcoming 1952-53 season, Adams put Fielder on a line with veteran stars Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe, hoping for another “Production Line,” as the team had had for several years with Abel centering it. But it didn’t work then either.

Adams should have learned his lesson the second time around in 1957. Ex-NHLer Murray Costello said in Gordie, a Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming that “…when you were on the ice with Howe, he carried the puck. Well, if Guyle Fielder didn’t carry the puck, he was nothing…What he [Adams] should have done is put 2 speedsters with Fielder, and he’d have sprung them loose…But that was Adams. He ruled the roost.” Bill McFarland, Fielder’s teammate in Seattle added, “It’s mind-boggling to me he [Fielder] couldn’t play in the NHL and not be a great player.” When I lived in Regina, my Junior B coach was Bill Folk, a star defenseman in the Western Hockey League when Fielder played there. Folk added to the mix, also thinking very highly of Fielder’s talents, mentioning more than once that “Golden Guyle” should have been in the NHL.

Fielder was not only a superb playmaker, but he could also score when called upon. The best example was a particular game during the 1953-54 season, while on the road with his Seattle Bombers in Vancouver getting ready to play the Canucks. That morning he read a piece in the local sports pages where the writer criticized Fielder for only being able to set up goals and not going in himself. In response, Fielder scored all 4 goals that night in a 4-3 victory on Canucks goalie Gump Worsley.
Guyle Fielder with the  Seattle Totems
(photo courtesy Jeff Obermeyer)

At one time or another, Fielder was the property of 5 of the 6 NHL teams, every franchise except the Montreal Canadiens. The Toronto Maple Leafs claimed him in June 1958 from Seattle in the Inter-League draft, after another great season in the Western Hockey League  that saw him collect  111 points in 62 games. Leafs coach-GM Punch Imlach wanted Fielder bad and flew out to Seattle to talk with him. Fielder, however, wasn’t all that excited in joining the Leafs. He was well paid on the West Coast, the same as what Imlach was offering, and was in the midst of training as an electrician. Besides, Fielder wanted a promise whereby if he did not make the team, he’d come back to Seattle instead of being sent to the Leafs minor league team, the Pittsburgh Hornets. Imlach said nix to that, and Fielder stayed in the Seattle. Imlach would try again 13 years later.

Fielder retired briefly after scoring a “mediocre” 94 points (20 goals and 74 assists) in the 1968-69 season. At 39, he felt it was time for the youngsters to take over. In addition, he was having a contract dispute with Seattle Totems management. But his retirement didn’t last long. The expansion Salt Lake City Eagles received permission from Seattle to talk to Fielder, then offered him a then-hefty $20,000 contract. First, the Eagles traded away forward Bobby Schmautz to get him. Fielder also liked the fact that Salt Lake’s coach Ray Kinasewich was an ex-linemate of his in Seattle.

In the fall of 1971, Punch Imlach, this time coach-GM of the expansion Buffalo Sabres, invited Fielder to the team’s camp. Two months away from 41, Fielder impressed everybody with his skills. The much-younger Sabres players such as Gil Perreault and Rick Martin thought he was the best player on the ice. “He’s as good as he ever was. He’s absolutely unreal,” Imlach informed the press.

But Fielder still preferred his familiar Western Hockey League, and Imlach lost out a second time with the star. In January 1972, Fielder was traded to the Portland Buckaroos. A month later, the  Dayton-Houston Aeros selected Fielder in the World Hockey League’s first draft, but again he stayed where he was. After a year and a half with the Buckaroos, he announced his final retirement, six months shy of his 43rd birthday. The patented playmaker to the end, he scored 11 goals and collected 47 assists, while missing only 2 games of the 72-game schedule.

Was Fielder born too soon? Perhaps. Let’s project him forward in time to 2014. Wouldn’t he be a great fit in Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings system of puck control and crisp passing? But forget putting him on the same line with another wizard with a puck by the name of Pavel Datsyuk. Fielder agreed with me and added, “Datsyuk  and  Zetterberg [his teammate] are two great hockey players. They play the game the way it should be played.”

Asked if he watches that much hockey today, he replied, “I do but I don’t like what I see.  In my day, very few players were over six feet. Now no one is under six feet. They’re bigger and faster, but no hockey sense. When the guys get the puck now, they fire it in the corner and they all go chasing it, leaving no one to pass to. It frustrates me.”

He’s also frustrated by not being in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  “There’s several players in there who had never played a game in the NHL,” he said. Fielder’s right. Vladislav Trekiak and Valeri Kharlamov from the 1972 Russian team are 2 of them. And you can’t forget the 3 recent  female inductees, Angela James, Cammi Granato, and Geraldine Heaney?  Are these 5  more deserving than him?

Guyle Fielder was the first professional player to score 2,000 points in regular season and playoffs combined. Only Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretsky and Mark Messier have done it since. The difference is Fielder scored all his points in the minor leagues, and because of that a lot of people have never heard of him. And that’s a shame.

Still, the question remains…is he being kept out of the Hall of Fame because he didn’t play the game the NHL’s way?

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