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They Just Couldn't Cut It

Willie Marshall
1957-58 Parkhurst hockey card of Willie Marshall (Canadian Public Domain)

Another nostalgic hockey article, this one about six prominent minor league players who performed in the Original Six post-World War II era, but for some reason couldn’t make a go of it in the National Hockey League. For one thing, there were only about 90-95 players in the entire NHL then, with thirty or so being defensemen, and only one goalie per team. Also, players could actually spend a whole career in the minor pro leagues and make some half-decent money because they were not paid very well in the NHL…

WILLIE MARSHALL was a Kirkland Lake boy, a St Michael’s Majors junior graduate out of Toronto. Property of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings (and for a short time a Boston Bruin as well), Willie “The Whip” Marshall was a high-scoring 5-foot-10, 165-pound center who spent his ice time in American Hockey League rinks playing for teams based in Pittsburgh, Hershey, Rochester, Providence and Baltimore. 

His NHL spell consisted of exactly 33 games as a Leaf spread over four different seasons from 1952-1959 in which he scored once and assisted on five others. I can’t understand why he didn’t make it with the Leafs because they weren’t very good in the middle Fifties, badly in need of goal scorers.

Their loss. Marshall was a star in the AHL, perhaps the greatest or at least tied for the greatest. Upon retirement, following his 20-year career in 1972, Willie set AHL lifetime records for goals (523), assists (852), points (1,375), games (1,205), playoff assists (71), playoff points (119), and for sharing playoff goals (48), this with Fred Glover.

Marshall’s best season was spent with the 1957-58 Hershey Bears, scoring 40 goals and collecting  64 assists for 104 points, one of his four 90-point-plus seasons.

Another American League star, center FRED GLOVER, actually held the American League record of 522 goals when he retired in 1968, only to be beaten out four seasons later by Willie Marshall. Detroit Red Wings property as a junior star for the Galt Red Wings in the OHA, Glover was quickly sent to the Omaha Knights of the United States Hockey League for 1947-48. 

After spending time in Indianapolis, a two-game playoff stint with Detroit in 1949, seven more regular-season games with the Wings in 1949-50, and a couple more short call-ups with Detroit, he played 52 regular season games on the Red Wings championship squad as a fourth line center in 1951-52 and an occasional penalty killer. In the Motor City, he scored nine goals and assisted on nine others.

The next season, he was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks where he suited up for 31 games, collecting four goals and two assists. To finish the season, he played seven games for the AHL St. Louis Flyers and another 29 for the Cleveland Barons. From then on, he was a Cleveland Baron legend right up to his final season in pro hockey. 

For the Barons, he was a First Team All-Star five times, Second Team All-Star twice, an AHL  top scorer twice, and an MVP three times. He scored 20 or more goals 16 times. 

Bill Folk
1951 publicity photo of Bill Folk during his first stint with the Detroit Red Wings (US Public Domain)

At a strapping six-foot plus, 200-pounds, my Junior B coach in Regina, BILL FOLK, was a star in the Western Hockey League. He was a stay-at-home defenseman whose average offensive output was something like a half-dozen goals and 20-25 assists per season. He could block shots, play it rough in the corners, and duke it out when called upon. In other words, Bill played it hard, and he had the face scares to prove it. His only NHL spell involved a short 12-game stint as a spare defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings spread over two seasons, 1951-52 and 1952-53.

I once asked Bill why he didn’t make it in the NHL and he said that it had everything to do with telling Wings GM Jack Adams that he was tired of sitting on the bench after his second call-up. So, Adams sent Bill back to the Wings farm team in Edmonton. He was only 26 at the time, destined forever to stay a minor leaguer.

The much-travelled Bill Folk played for several teams established in cities around North America during his 15-year pro career--Omaha, Indianapolis, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Providence, Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Spokane. Bill was also a very heavy smoker. A teammate of mine asked him when he had taken on the habit. “When I knew I wouldn’t make the NHL,” he replied, chuckling. 

In the autumn of 1961, Bill, then 34 and captain of the Spokane Comets, raced for a puck in his end and collapsed against the boards from a heart attack. Rushed to the hospital, he subsequently survived the ordeal, but never played pro hockey again. He returned to his hometown Regina and, starting two years later, played a couple of seasons for the senior hockey Regina Capitals before packing it in. 

Then we come to offensive standout, five-time All-Star left winger GORDIE FASHOWAY, from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, who, at one time held the record for most goals scored in pro hockey when he passed Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s mark of 544 (set in 1960 with the Montreal Canadiens) in 1963. Not much of a playmaker or defensive standout, the strong, but gentlemanly Fashoway could sure as hell put the puck between the pipes of bewildered goaltenders, though.  

Signed by the Chicago Black Hawks, his NHL career consists of only 13 games for them in 1950-51. There, in the Windy City, he scored three times and assisted on two others. Then he went on to lite up the Western Hockey League similar to a popular Hank Williams tune at the time: “Setting the Woods on Fire.” 

Eight times Gordie scored at least 40 goals (rare, even in the minors then), including four straight in the mid-1950s with the New Westminster Bruins. Four other seasons, he reached that total. On two of those occasions, he passed 50, one of those hitting 52 (his personal high mark) in the United States Hockey League with the 1949-50 Kansas City Pla-Mors. 

Nicknamed “The Needle,” GILLES MAYER was an Ottawa boy and Toronto Maple Leafs property, a standout for their AHL farm team, the Pittsburgh Hornets. Four times in the early 1950s, including three straight, he lead the AHL in goals-against average, but played in only nine games--scattered over four seasons--for the Leafs. The reason? He was the temporary call-up for the main guy, unfortunately: for Turk Broda in one game, and Harry Lumley the last eight. Both Broda and Lumley ended up Hall of Famers. Basically, Mayer was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Still young at 26, he was dealt to Detroit in the summer of 1956, but never played for them or any other NHL squad again. Mayer finished his pro days in 1963, stopping more pucks for Hershey, Cleveland and Providence in the American Hockey League. Altogether, he played in almost 700 AHL games, was on five championships, and finished second in shutouts at 41. 

Quite the accomplishment for a little guy at 5-foot-6 and barely 130 pounds. In 1959, he was the first AHL goalie to wear a face mask, just months after Montreal’s Jacques Plante cleared the way.

Guyle Fielder
1957 publicity photo of Guyle Fielder during his second shot with the Detroit Red Wings (US Public Domain)

GUYLE FIELDER was probably the best and certainly the famous of these high-end minor leaguers. Born in Potlach, Idaho in 1930 and raised in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, he was a junior hockey superstar in Western Canada with Prince Albert and Lethbridge. As a free agent, he signed his first pro contract with the Chicago Black Hawks in March 1951. 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 very few could. 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. 

Spending his best years with the Seattle Totems, Fielder was the Western Hockey League’s MVP six times, including four straight years from 1957-1960. A 12-time all-star, 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. At one time or another, Fielder was the property of five of the six NHL teams, every franchise except the Montreal Canadiens.  But when called up for different NHL spells totaling nine regular season and six playoff games, he couldn’t net a single point. 

Why couldn’t he cut it in the Big Show? “I didn’t play the NHL’s dump-and-chase system,” the then-83-year old told me over-the-phone from his home in Mesa, Arizona in 2014. This must’ve irked the NHL coaches and GMs to no end. “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.”

After all this, one thing is very clear: Had the Entry Draft and expansion been around when all these players had finished their junior years, they probably all would’ve made the NHL, and quite possibly in their first year without going through the minors. You have to wonder how many would’ve made the Hockey Hall of Fame?


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