June 09, 2006

Guyle Fielder

Guyle Fielder only played in 15 NHL contests and never scored a single point, but he is one of hockey's all time greats. In fact one publication called him the greatest star hockey has never seen.

Fielder had a cup of coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins but he is generally considered to be one of - if not the VERY best - minor professional hockey players in hockey history.

Back in the 1950s and to a lesser extent the 1960s - the two decades Fielder dominated - minor league hockey was very strong in terms of competition. Many of the players and a few of the teams were definitely NHL quality. Because he played what, at that time anyways, was considered to be an unconventional brand of hockey, he never really got a good chance at the NHL. He simply refused to play the dump and chase, never handle the puck, defense first brand of hockey the NHL believed in back then. He would much rather have played in anonymity in the minor leagues where he still earned a good living and could play the style of hockey he liked.

Golden Guyle was born in Potlatch, Idaho on November 21st, 1930 although he moved with his family to Spalding, Saskatchewan before his second birthday. By the time he was 8 years old he had fallen in love with the game on the ice when his family moved to Nipawin, Saskatchewan. By the time he was in grade 8 he would drop out of school to concentrate on his hockey abilities. Soon he would move to Prince Albert where he starred with the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League then later to Lethbridge to play with Native Sons of the Western Canadian Junior Hockey League. He tore up these junior leagues - leading them in goals once, points twice and assists 3 times in his 4 seasons of junior hockey.

Late in 1951 - his final year of junior hockey - the 5'9" 165 pound playmaking wizard signed as a free agent with the NHL Chicago Blackhawks. He played in 3 games with linemates Bep Guidolin and Freddie Hucul but didn't get a point or a chance to really show what he was cable of.

Guyle, or Tom as he was known to many of his teammates, was capable of a lot. Had he gotten a chance he might have revolutionized the NHL game. Back in the 1950s and 1960s it was an extreme defensive game. Fielder's game incorporated some of the same aspects that Wayne Gretzky's would many years later. Although his statistics make it easy to suggest, it would be unfair to say Guyle Fielder was the Wayne Gretzky of the 1950s and 1960s. Fielder loved to carry the puck from his own zone, weaving in and out through the neutral zone, gain the offensive zone and then set up the offense. He used a shifty skating ploy as he lacked any element of speed to gain the zones. He rarely would just fire the puck into the zone. Instead he'd carry the puck in and play keep away with his incredible puck handling abilities. After drawing the attention of all the defenders Guy would then dish the puck off to an open teammate who would more often than not have a good opportunity to score.

Despite his success with this game style in the minor leagues, no NHL team was willing to allow him to try the same thing in the big leagues.

The Hawks felt Fielder's style of play wasn't ready for the NHL the following season and was loaned to the New Westminster Royals of the PCHL. He had a strong season - scoring 25 goals and 75 points in just 57 games. yet he never got that call back to Chicago.

The Hawks traded Fielder to the Detroit Red Wings just prior to the start of the 1952-53 season. People in the Motor City were excited that this youngster was in their system. They had visions of this super playmaker playing on a line with the great Gordie Howe!

It didn't work out that way however. Fielder was sent to the St. Louis Flyers of the AHL where he led the league in assists with 61 in 62 games while capturing the Red Garrett Memorial Award as the league's top rookie. He got a call up to Detroit for 4 games in the playoffs - but failed to score any points.

The Wings left Fielder unprotected on their waiver list in September 1953. The New York Rangers claimed him but traded him to the Seattle Bombers of the WHL. Seattle would become the home of Fielder and his greatness for many years.

After leading the WHL with 64 assists and 84 points in 68 games, the NHL came calling for Fielder again. The Boston Bruins purchased Guy from Seattle. However he'd only play 2 playoff games in a Bruins jersey, and otherwise played in the minor leagues yet again. At first he was sent back to the New West Royals (he again led the league in assists with 67 that year) but by 1955-56 he was again in Seattle - playing for the same WHL team now named the Americans.

Fielder really took his game to a new level when he to back to Seattle. He obliterated hockey scoring records in 1956-57 when scored 33 goals and unheard of 89 assists and 122 points! This of course convinced the NHL to once again give Guyle a look.

The Red Wings came back looking for him, and purchased his rights for NHL participation from the Bruins. He started the year in Detroit playing on the top line with Gordie Howe. However the experiment ended shortly. The Wings got off to an awful start - and Guyle again went pointless in what proved to be his last NHL stint.

"It might have been different if I'd been able to play on a line without Howe," he explained. "Gordie was the same type of player that I was. He liked to have control of the puck, make the plays, set up the others to score. There wasn't much point in having both of us out there on the same line." Guyle said in Stan Fischler's Hockey Encyclopedia (1975)

The Wings lost their first 6 games and Fielder found himself quickly moved off the first line and eventually onto the bench. Frustrated, Fielder asked to go back to Seattle where he had played so well in the past.

"He called me one night and said, 'Get me the hell out of here,'" recalls his Seattle coach Keith Allen, who was glad to have him back.

"I said I'd rather play in the minors than sit on the bench in the NHL," said Fielder.

When Guy returned to Seattle - now renamed the Totems - he picked up right where he left off. He scored 26 goals and again led the league with 85 assists and 111 points.

The Toronto Maple Leafs came calling after that season, but they could not woo Guy out of Seattle. Guy was apprenticing as an electrician at the time, and was thinking of his long term future. He didn't want to leave the city of Seattle without some guarantees. There was a lot of bus and train travel between those cities and if he signed he wanted play in either Toronto or Seattle, and never have to make that long trip.

He never could come to an agreement with Punch Imlach, Toronto's GM, so he remained in Seattle for the next 11 years. He led the league in assists in 9 of those years (including a career high 95 in 1958-59) and points 7 years.

As the 1960's decade came to a close Fielder was finally moved from Seattle. He went to Salt Lake City, Utah in a WHL trade for a young Bobby Schmautz. Guyle played 2 and 1/2 seasons their and 1 and 1/2 seasons with the Portland Buckaroos.

Fielder's statistics are mind boggling - even if they are all in the Western Hockey League. The WHL was generally considered to be the third best league during its time - behind the NHL and the number one farm league - the AHL, although Fielder claimed it was only "a half-step if that behind" the NHL. He has 9 league scoring titles to his credit, along with 14 assist titles. What makes his 9 scoring titles even more impressive is that he was never among the top goal scorers in any league. In fact he only top 30 twice as a pro in 22 years.

His assist statistics and shifty skating style make many people compare him as "The Wayne Gretzky of the minor leagues." His former coach and long time Philadelphia Flyer executive Keith Allen called him "The Gordie Howe of the minor leagues" long before anyone had heard of Gretzky. "He was the greatest minor league player I've ever seen in my life....He could make a play as well as anyone in hockey."

There is no doubt that Guyle is the greatest player in the old WHL professional league. Fielder won the Leader Cup - Most Valuable Player in the WHL - six times, the Leading Scorer Award nine times, the Fred J. Hume Cup - Most Gentlemanly Player award - three times, and had 12 all-star mentions. In his professional career he had 1,929 points in 1496 regular season games including his one season in the American Hockey League. Those totals include 439 goals and 1490 assists! If you count his playoff points he became the first hockey player to score over 2000 points in a career!

Yet he only had 15 games in the NHL - and no points. How is it possible that perhaps the best player of the era not named Howe, Richard or Beliveau could not play in the National Hockey League?

"In that era it was always a mystery as to why he wasn't playing in the NHL....He was an outstanding player," advised long time NHL referee and Hall of Fame hockey builder Scotty Morrison in an interview with Steve Smith of Sports Collector's Digest.

"He played his own style of hockey," says one time linemate and long time NHLer Val Fonteyne, "but up there (in the NHL) you played the style they wanted. They used to tell you if you don't make the play just dump the puck in. But Guyle used to hang on to it until he made the play. You could get away with that in the minors but not in the NHL."

As a result NHL teams would be as impatient as Guyle was stubborn about the style of play. Word got out about his insistence on playing his way, and not the accepted team way, and he was quickly labeled as an individualist and not a good team player by the NHL big wigs.

Edmonton sports columnist John Short offered Sports Collector's Digest a slightly different point of view:

"He was a great hockey player but he didn't want to work hard enough to play in the NHL."

Keith Allen disagrees. "I worked the hell out of that little bugger," Allen told Smith. "He started the game. He played the power play. He killed penalties. I'd say he played, conservatively, 30 minutes a game for me in Seattle."

Guyle Fielder is one of the greatest hockey players ever - only very few people know it. He was very much a man before his time. Had he come along 20 or 30 years later, he would have excelled as his style of play became more and more accepted.

There is even a small movement to get him elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a result of his minor league accomplishments. While it is unlikely he will get in, he deserves a look.

5 comments:

Jim said...

unlikely they will put in in the HHOF but there are others in there who are no more deserving. Guyle deserves mention and should be remembered

Anonymous said...

I seen him play for Seattle when they played the Edmonton Flyers in 1959 when i lived in Edmonton. He was dazzling, I am 64 yrs old and have never in my life in all the yrs i have watched hockey EVER seen such greatness as I did with Guyle Fielder, a hockey player ahead of his time, just a crying shame more people dont know about him.....

Gordy said...

I remember regularly watching Fielder with the Totems in the late 60's / early 70's. Although he looked old to me - I was just 11 - he clearly was the fastest, most agile man on the ice. He wore his tightly fitted, round Cooper helmet unstrapped. The dangling straps curled up the side of his helmet creating the appearance of wings. This was very befitting of the most talented guy on the ice . . . I wonder where he is today?

Joe Pelletier said...

As I understand it he is retired and living in Mesa, Arizona. He apparently worked the window at horse and dog racing tracks after leaving the ice.

Anonymous said...

I saw Guyle play for the Lethbridge Native Sons in the early 50's, hadn't seen him since but saw him last night playing in a nine ball pool tournament in Mesa, he is a very good Pool Player. Smooth, just like he was as a Hockey Player.

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