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Guyle Fielder with Salt Lake Eagles (WHL)
“Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride” is an obvious reference to the lot of a lady who has often been an attendant at a marriage, but has yet to wear a white dress and experience a gold ring slipped onto her finger. Over time it evolved into an adage which speaks of anyone who never quite manages to fulfill a specific ambition—who gets close, but falls short.
In the world of professional hockey an adaption of that phrase—“always a bridegroom”—can apply to skilled goalies, defensemen, and forwards who have made it big in the minor leagues, but who failed to stick as members of NHL sextets. In fact, there have been at least 23 career minor leaguers, mostly from the American Hockey League, and the now defunct Western Hockey League, who fit that mould. This was particularly true during the days of the “Original 6”, when only 120 roster positions were available in the Big Time!
For instance, there is Kevin Kerr. “Kevin who?”, not a few hockey fans may ask. In 2005, Kevin was declared to be the all-time leader in Minor Pro league goals scored, though he was surpassed three years later. At that time, he had bulged the twine 664 times behind non-NHL backstops. He finished his career with a total of 718 markers with 700 helpers. He skated in the AHL, IHL, ECHL, UHL, and Colonial circuits. His milestone season was 1996-97, when he lit the red lamps in the Colonial League 72 times. Yet, he never got a look-see in the world’s premier league.
Almost the same may be said for Joe Hardy, although he did spend parts of two campaigns with the Oakland/California Seals. His claim to fame revolves around being the first pay-for-play skater to reach 200 points in a single season. He piled up 208 (60 goals and 148 assists) in 1976-77 as a key member of the Beauce Jaros of the NAHL. In fact, he and his line-mates finished 1,2,3, in league scoring—with one more team member finishing fourth. A decade later, Wayne Gretzky broke his record with 215 points.
Other competitors who have seen limited action in the Big Time in the New Millennium include Bruce Boudreau. Readily classed as a hockey commuter, his 18 seasons of pay-for-play shinny saw him split seasons with various NHL farm teams, and the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks. His best year was 1982-83, when he clocked 50 goals and 72 assists, for a total 122 points as a member of the St. Catharines Saints. But numbers like 42, 47, 42, 41, and 40 in the GF department were not uncommon for him. Still, he never made a permanent home in hockey’s top rung of the ladder. A heady puckster, he turned to coaching in 1990, and has been head honcho in the NHL for 11 seasons.
On February 21, 2000, Jock Callander was declared to be the International Hockey League’s all-time leading scorer. The 38-year-old captain of the Cleveland Lumberjacks reached a total of 550 goals and 833 assists (including both regular season and playoffs), totaling 1383 points. This gave him one more than long-time IHL stalwart, Len Thornson. Apart from a couple of seasons in the old Central League, and 109 contests with the NHL Penguins and Lightning, he was a “household name” in the “I”. His best campaign was with Muskegon in 1986-87, when his “line score” was 54-82-136. But he had five 100-point seasons over 15 seasons in the loop.
But, as mentioned, it was the almost gang who toiled during the “Original 6” years of the NHL, who were often left standing on the doorstep of the Big Time, because there were just too many skaters with potential NHL talent standing there with them, knocking on the same doors.
Virtually every decade commencing in the 1930s could boast an NHL “wannabe”, who, with half a break—being on the right minor league sextet at the right place and the right time—could have become a regular in the world’s premier loop.
For instance, Les Cunningham, who excelled for 15 seasons in the AHL and its forerunners, could easily have made the rosters of the 31-team NHL today. It was no small feat to dent the hemp in that league in the third decade of the 20th century—and he did it 233 times This earned him First All-Star selections four years running, and one league MVP trophy. In fact, the current league MVP award is named after this talented centre. When he retired, he was the American League’s all-time leading scorer, and was elected to the circuit’s hall of fame. He played just 60 big league matches. But in one of them, with Chicago, he scored two goals and added three assists in one period, a record which lasted 38 years until Brian Trottier broke it.
The quality of goaltending by stars like Tiny Thompson, Brimsek, Broda, Durnan, and Rayner, made it perhaps the most difficult hurdle for lesser lights to break the barrier to the Big Time. One who apparently seemed qualified to reach those heights was Harvey Bennett Sr. Despite his stellar performances in the AHL with the Providence Reds, his stay in the NHL was strictly as a substitute. When Boston’s Frank Brimsek joined the armed services Bennett was called up to take his place for 25 games. He was demoted upon “Mr. Zero’s” return, and never played another major league game.
Another skater was Stoney Creek native, Jack Stoddard. A graduate of Hamilton Junior and Senior OHA teams, he was signed by the Providence Reds of the AHL in 1947. In his first three full seasons with the club he averaged 31 goals, with the high of 37 in 1950-51. One local sports writer referred to him as “one of the most prolific scorers in team history.” By December of the following campaign, he was leading the circuit in scoring, which caught the attention of the New York Rangers. By January 1,1952 he had donned the colours of the Broadway Blueshirts.
What was confusing, however, was that, although the team desperately need scoring punch, Coach Bill Cook placed him on a checking line with Laprade and Kullman. As one former shinny journalist put it: “It was like hitching a thoroughbred race horse to a milk wagon!” Because he was shadowing snipers like Richard, Mosienko, and Lindsay, in effect tying his hands as a point getter, by the time training camp opened in the fall of 1953, he had been sold to Cleveland Barons of the AHL. After a single season, he ended up with Providence once more, but a year off with injury initiated a slippery slope away from the Big Time. After half a season in the Quebec League, he was informed he could make his own deal for the future.
Over the course of no less than 15 seasons, Guyle Fielder’s statistical records include asterisks, indicating leading in goals, assists or points. Tommy McVie, who coached the Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, and New Jersey Devils, was a teammate of the Nipawin, Saskatchewan native when he played with the Western League’s Seattle Totems. In an October 1991 issue of the Hockey News he boldly rated Fielder second only to Bobby Orr as “the best hockey player he ever saw!”
That’s quite a mouth full, in that he was bench boss to players like Scott Stevens, Peter Stastny, and Dale Hawerchuck. “He could actually control the whole flow of a hockey game….it was almost freakish that he was given so much talent!”, were samples of the tributes he directed Guyle’s way.
His career highlights are indeed impressive. He was the Pacific Coast League’s rookie-of-the-year in 1951-52, and won the AHL Rookie Award a year later. When the PCHL became the WHL he was scoring champion 9 times; three times its MVP; 12 times he was selected to All Star teams; and three times he earned the Most Gentlemanly Player award. In 1966-67 he copped four of those honours all in one season. He was also the first pro player to tally 2000 plus points.
The obvious question is: “Why didn’t he graduate to the NHL?” He actually had four shots at it. As the points leader of the Western Canada Junior loop in 1950-51, he was given a try-out by Chicago. But, as perpetual cellar dwellers, the Blackhawks had no patience with a hotshot who didn’t lead them out of the hockey wilderness in one fell swoop.
Three years later, the Red Wings took a look see during the playoffs. His “line score” was again 0-0-0, so he was demoted to Seattle. The Bruins were next to put him under the microscope—during the 1954 playoffs—but again he flunked the test.
After a record-breaking campaign with Seattle in 1956-57, the MotorCity management decided to give him another chance. This time he started the first six contests of the new season. Manager Jack Adams boasted that as “the best player in the minors” he looked ready to fill the gap at centre left by Sid Abel’s retirement. This writer saw him during that test run, and he looked as capable as any of the Detroit pivots. But, once more, he failed to notch a point. Adams changed his tune and tagged him as “too slow, too set in his playing habits, too late in making his bid!” Fielder himself echoed that sentiment: “It was mainly a case of being born too soon!”
“Wee Willie” Marshall really didn’t need to play hockey for a living. His iron-ore claim near his hometown of KirklandLake turned out to be a bonanza. He became President of the company and traded on the stock exchange.
But, even though, like the others mentioned above, he was not given a fair opportunity for permanent promotion to the NHL, playing only 33 games over four years with the Leafs, he was a dominant player in the AHL. When he retired in 1971, he was league leader in games (1205), goals (523), assists (852) and points (1375). He was an All-Star three times; and scoring champion once. In 2003-04 he was honoured by having a trophy named after him—the Willie Marshall Award, given annually to the AHL goal scoring leader.
In the December 1966 issue of the Hockey News, John Travers penned a profile of Freddie “No Kid” Glover. “They called him ‘Old Ironside’ around the AHL … after 18 years in the league he owns just about every record in the book.”
The boisterous right winger spent the majority of his on-ice career with one club—the Cleveland Barons—15 and a half seasons to be precise. He played the part of commuter between the Red Wings and Indianapolis for four campaigns—his stint in the NHL being a total of 92 games—some with Chicago. He was even on a Stanley Cup winning squad with Detroit. But essentially his bailiwick was in the minors.
Four times he was league MVP; twice he copped the scoring crown; and on eight occasions he was selected as an All Star. He was described as an “all or nothing” competitor when a player, and instilled fire into his charges when he was a coaching.
Several years ago, a sports publication chose the “All Time AHL All Star Team”. The hands down favourite for the position of goalie was Johnny Bower. However, “The China Wall” does not legitimately fit into the “always a bridegroom” mould, since he spent 13 full campaigns in the NHL.
But, probably Gilles Mayer fills the bill best, with Marcel Paille a close second. The 5’6”, 135 lb. Ottawa native managed but nine matches in the Big Time, all with the Maple Leafs. Nicknamed “The Needle” because of his build, he guarded the twine for four different AHL clubs, but was best remembered for his days with the Pittsburgh Hornets.
He was chosen an All Star five times, retired second only to Johnny Bower in league shutout totals, and is a member of the AHL Hall of Fame. Most significantly, he won the Hap Holmes Award (equivalent to the Vezina Trophy) four times.
Also selected for the AHLHOF honour was Dick Gamble at the left wing position. Possibly not as well-known as his line-mates on the forward line (Glover and Fielder), although he was property of the Maple Leafs, and eventually played only a handful of games for them. Conn Smythe considered him too much of a light weight when he graduated from Junior. But Dick Irvin snapped him up for the Canadiens. He was part of that club for four seasons. And, having potted 23 markers in 1951-52, he made a trip to the NHL All Star game. But injuries hampered him, meaning that the bulk of his shinny career was of the minor league variety.
But he shone at that level. He was a prolific scorer, with eleven 30-goal campaigns, retiring as the fourth all-time scorer in the league. He was a shoo-in for the AHL Hall of Fame.
A defenseman chosen for that team was Steve Kraftcheck. He stands out, in that, for 40 years, he held the AHL record for most points by a rearguard.
He was described as an old-time kind of blueliner, who loved to connect with hard, open-ice body checks. Yet, his style of play meant that he incurred less-than-normal penalty minutes for his rough and tough approach to the game. He was a perennial All Star; won the Eddie Shore Award for Best Defenseman in 1959; and was posthumously inducted in that league’s hall of fame in 2006.
He played two full campaigns for the Rangers in ’51-’52, and ’52-’53. Yet was considered expendable the following year, ending up in Cleveland of the AHL. This writer recalls hearing a pre-season comment from a Toronto sportscaster, acknowledging that the Leafs had acquired his services (in 1958) because “he finally had learned how to play defense”. But after only eight contests he was back on the farm.
We would be remiss if Frank Mathers was not included in this preferential list—at least in “honourable mention”. Another Maple Leaf farmhand, his profile shines brightest due to his place among the elite in the Hockey Hall of Fame—as a “builder”—acknowledging his contribution to the Hershey Bears AHL club, as coach, manager, and president. His years in pro hockey spanned 35 years—17 as a player, 18 as coach, manager, and team president. He moved then to serve on the board of governors of the circuit.
He served with distinction as a pilot in World War II, and had his heart set on being a dentist. But, following military service he skated for the Ottawa Senators Senior team for three seasons, and caught the eye of the Rangers. He was part of a big deal that sent Cal Gardner and Bill Juzda to Toronto in exchange for Wally Stanowski.
He was no slouch as a rearguard; unfortunately he was destined to life in the minors. He was chosen as All-Star defenseman five times, and, like Glover, he was an original inductee into the AHL Hall of Fame!
The February 1962 issue of the Hockey Pictorial included a feature article on Bill Sweeney, entitled, “Hockey’s Forgotten Man”. Doubtless this tribute was borrowed from Pat Egan, who coached the AHL’s perennial top-ten point-getter in Springfield. He called him “the forgotten player of the NHL”.
He won the AHL Rookie-of-the-Year Award in 1958, which eventually earned him a tryout with the Rangers. But he stayed for only four games, before being demoted. Answering the criticism that the slick centre was “too slow for the NHL”, Egan claimed he is “outstanding. He’s a great passer, and he’s simply terrific around the net!” He must have been right—he won the league scoring race three times. But he never got another shot at the top.
Recently Art Stratton’s name has appeared countless times on the SIHR e-list. His nine assists in the March 17, 1963 contest as a member of the Buffalo Bisons prompting all this attention. His point totals accumulated over 20 years in mercenary shinny circles are, to say the least, impressive. 90-109-94-90-95 are samples—always top-heavy in the helpers columns. His longevity on the ice lanes means that his career includes both pre and post 1967 NHL expansion years. In fact, his initial stint with the Rangers in 1959-60 and his final cup of tea with the Philadelphia Flyers span 18 years. In between and around, he tested the waters in six different leagues. He was chosen as the league’s MVP twice, won the scoring championship once, and took All-Star berths three times. He was also the CHL MVP twice.
Space (as well as the danger of ad infinitum) will not permit profiling all who could be included in this missive. But we conclude further detailed biographies by focusing on Art Jones, whose tenure in hockey was almost exclusively with the old WHL. 16 of those 20 seasons were spent with the Portland Buckaroos. Jones was the loop’s leading scorer six times—each but one time he exceeded a 100-point total. He was the circuit’s MVP twice. The strangest part of it all was that he was never selected to either All Star squad. Years ago, when John White wrote a feature article about him, he calculated that the only explanation was that he was a smallish skater and went about his task without fanfare. Long-time WHL bench boss, Bud Poile, said: “You don’t even notice Jones on the ice. Then you look at the score-sheet, and he’s the guy who beat you.” He was a “bridegroom” in the strictest sense—he never played a single game in the NHL.
Mike Nykoluk, Eddie Dorohoy, Jim Anderson, Connie Madigan and Jody Gage are others who deserve recognition; but they were not given credit enough to become fixtures in the Big Time.
As in social circles, when “always a bridesmaid” depends on the choices of others—essentially, in Canada’s National Sport, the same has been true for far too many.
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