In today’s watered-down version of the National Hockey League, it can be easy to forget that in 1966-67, there were only six teams fighting for the chance to raise the Stanley Cup to the rafters. In fact, there were only 28 teams in all of professional hockey, including the American, Western, and Central leagues. That means two full teams of NHL players today would have been playing semi-pro or senior hockey 40 years ago.
At that time, due to the numbers game, many minor league star players never had a chance to play in the NHL – players who would have been stars in today’s game. One of these players was an American named Guyle Fielder.
Guyle Fielder dominated the Western Hockey League the same way Mario Lemeiux and Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL. In 22 professional seasons, he scored 1,929 points. That leaves him fourth behind Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messer, and Gordie Howe in points by a professional.
Guyle Abner Fielder was born in Potlach, Idaho during the depression. Small in stature, weighing only 165 pounds, Fielder made a name for himself playing Junior hockey for the Lethbridge Native Sons in the Western Junior Hockey League. As a rookie in 1950, he scored 47 goals and had a total of 105 points, finishing second in the scoring race. The following season he won a scoring title.
Lethbridge was sponsored by the Chicago Blackhawks and at the end of the 1951 season, Chicago gave the young American a three-game tryout. Fielder did not score a point in the three games but impressed the Blackhawks enough to earn a spot the following season with their farm team, the New Westminster Royals of the Pacific Coast League.
Fielder would play one year with New Westminster and it proved to be a good one. He won the Rookie of the Year award, edging out future Hall of Famer Gump Worsley.
The following season saw Fielder play in the American Hockey League as a member of the St. Louis Flyers, a farm team of the Detroit Red Wings. He led the league in assists and again won the Rookie of the Year award. Detroit recalled him for the playoffs against Boston. The Wings were upset by Boston, thus costing Fielder a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
In the early to mid fifties, Detroit had a powerful hockey club and there was no room for fielder. Ahead of him at center were Alex Delvechio, Earl Riebel, Norm Ullman, and Metro Prystai. Wanting a place to play regularly, Fielder found himself back in the Western League and, other than two brief returns to the NHL with Detroit and Boston, would remain there for the next 20 years.
There was no one better in the WHL. Art Jones of the Portland Buckaroos scored more goals, but Fielder was the consummate all-around player. He was the classic set-up man. Players who played on his line were consistent 40 goal men. Wayne Brown scored 49 goals in 1953-54, Fielder’s first year with the Seattle Totems. Ray Kinasewich had 44 in 1956-57 and 42 the following year. Future Minnesota North Star Bob Barlow had 47 in 1962-63.
Seattle fans loved him and he loved playing there. When Punch Imlach joined the Maple Leafs, his first assignment was to travel to Seattle to sign Fielder. In his autobiography, Heaven and Hell in the NHL, Imlach wrote, “He was a good player, but he just didn’t want to play in the NHL. Seattle was where he wanted to be and that’s where he stayed, always a good scorer and great playmaker.”
As a member of the Seattle Totems, Fielder won nine scoring championships, six MVP awards, three Fred J. Hume trophies as the league’s most gentlemanly player, and was a member of three Lester Patrick Cup Championships.
At the conclusion of the 1968-69 season, Fielder announced his retirement from hockey. He said, “It’s time for the youngsters to take over.”
When the 1969-70 season began, the holder of seven Western Hockey League records – most points, assists, and games played in a career; most points in a season; most assists in a season, and a shared record for most assists in a game – would be on the sidelines.
However, the retirement would not be a long one. The Salt Lake Eagles received permission from Seattle to speak with Fielder. They wanted to see if he would come out of retirement and play for them. Fielder, after first balking at the opportunity, agreed to report to the Eagles. In return, Seattle received forward Bobby Schmautz.
Fielder would play to-and-a-half seasons for the Eagles. He even attended the Buffalo Sabres training camp in 1971. Punch Imlach, general manager and coach of the Sabres said, “He’s as good now as he ever was. He’s absolutely unreal.” Others referred to him as the best player on the ice – a real leader.
In January of 1972, Fielder was traded to Portland in a multi-player deal. He would center a line between Andy Hebenton and Bill Saunders. The combination paid off early with Fielder scoring 13 points in his first six games, 12 of them assists. He was six months shy of his 43 birthday.
On October 12, 1973, Fielder announced his retirement. This time it was final. There would be no more comebacks. In 22 years in the minor leagues. Fielder scored 438 goals and 1,491 assists, for a total of 1,929 points.