I don’t follow the minor leagues as much as I should, I suppose—the AHL, East Coast League and Central Hockey league. Yet this is where so many future NHL’ers are—and on occasion former NHL’ers on the down side on their careers. (In this lockout year, the “minors” are flooded with many NHL-caliber players—young ones and older guys looking for one last shot at the big time…) The youngsters usually come from college or junior hockey, working to earn a shot in the “show”. But as we all know, reaching the top is not easy in any profession, and certainly not in professional hockey.
I raise this in part because there have always been 'tweeners'- excellent professional players who are superb at the minor league level, but for whatever reason, often don't quite seem to make it as successfully at the NHL level. A guy I've written about here on occasion, Marc Reaume, a fine young Maple Leaf in the late 1950s, was one of those 'in-between' players. While he showed well early on with the Leafs, he could never fully crack the "top four" defense corps which was all teams needed in those days. (In Toronto, that was Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley.) When the same thing happened after he was traded to Detroit, Reaume (who lived just a couple of miles away from me when I was a kid in the late '50s/'early '60s in a small town outside of Windsor, Ontario) essentially spent the next decade as an All-Star in the best minor leagues of the day.
In the current era, Marlie forward Keith Aucoin seems to be one of those guys. While he has played more than a hundred games in the NHL, he has achieved real prominence in the minors. In fact, as Marlie fans well know, he netted his 800th career point in the American Hockey League a few days ago for the baby Leafs. You never say never, but it's unlikely he will play much again in the NHL. But he has been a standout in the AHL and shows no signs of slowing down.
Now, back before the first wave of NHL expansion in 1967, there were, believe it or not, some minor-league teams that were strong enough that they may well have been able to compete with certain NHL teams. In fact, really good senior “A” teams in Canada may well have held their own, too. (I used to follow the old Windsor Bulldogs when I was a kid in the early ‘60s and went to a number of their games at the old Windsor Arena.) There were only 6 teams, of course, in the NHL, and while there were very few Americans or Europeans competing for jobs here in those days, making it to the NHL was still tough—very tough. There were maybe NHL 120 jobs “up for grabs”, if that—and in truth most of them were already taken, year after year. Roster change was minimal. (In fact, I've written a bit about the old Bulldogs here in the past. Click on their name above to read more. They had some former and future NHL'ers on their roster. The future NHL'er was goaltender Wayne Rutledge, who played in the early expansion years with the LA Kings as a teammate of 1967 Leaf playoff hero, Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk. A former NHL'er that I recall playing for the old Bulldogs in Windsor was Real Chevrefils (upper left), who was a big-time scorer in the mid-'50s with the Boston Bruins and played in Windsor when his NHL career was competed.
I read a story a while back about a current professional player who has scored something like 700 goals during a career that has taken him to the Central, East Coast and United Hockey Leagues. To me, that’s a significant accomplishment, and it got me thinking about players who had big-time success as minor leaguers when I was a kid, but who, for whatever reason, never quite found their niche in the NHL. (There were also players like Andy Hebenton, for example, the one-time NHL ironman who spent years with the Rangers and Bruins in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The solid two-way winger scored almost 200 goals in the old six-team NHL, then went on to play, remarkably, until he was 45 years of age in the old Western Hockey League—a top minor league in the good old days. He played over 600 NHL games and more than a thousand in the minors, scoring more than 400 goals in the minors. That’s almost 600 goals at the professional level. To me, that’s an amazing accomplishment.
But I’m thinking mostly today about guys who were essentially lifelong minor-leaguers. They maybe had a cup of coffee in the NHL (Hebenton, shown above right running over Leaf goaltender Don Simmons in early '60s action at Maple Leaf Gardens) was actually a star in the NHL, or close to it, a player I remember well with the Rangers), or even a bit more than that, but were primarily recognized for their contributions outside of the NHL.
I normally only write about things, games and players I myself saw, but I’ve always been interested in this subject. The guys I’m posting about today are all names I was very familiar with as a young hockey fans, but outside of Hebenton, I didn’t know much about them other than their names. I maybe read about them in hockey magazines, but we didn’t get to see minor-leaguers to any great extent way back when, at least not where I lived. I was aware of certain names because of their prodigious offensive scoring numbers, but by and large I focused on the NHL guys.
In the ‘50s, ‘60s and even into the ‘70s, there were players who had remarkable scoring records at the minor league level. Each of the American Hockey League, Central Hockey League, which was a top league back then, and the old Western Hockey League (was there Pacific Coast League, too? I'd have to check that) were populated by good teams and some fine players—many fighting for the day they would get their shot at the big leagues of hockey. Many, however, knew they were likely to finish their careers in the minors.
One name I remember well is that of Willie Marshall. He was briefly a Maple Leaf in the 1950s but had a lengthy—and brilliant—minor league career. There are some other names that come to mind of individuals who fit this mold—super successful in the minors but never really taking off at the NHL level. Names that come to mind include the aforementioned Marshall along with Fred Glover, Dick Gamble, Guyle Fielder and Bruce Boudreau.
Willie Marshall came up in the Leaf organization in the early 1950s. He scored 1 goal in 33 NHL games. (I had to look that up.) Yet he scored about 700 goals in the best minor leagues of his era, but somehow didn’t even play in the NHL in the expansion era, though he stayed in pro hockey until the mid-‘70s. It’s quite likely players like Marshall were simply happy playing where they were known, respected and successful.
Fred Glover was a young professional in the Red Wing system in the late 1940s. He played less than 100 games in the NHL. But he scored about 500 goals in the AHL. That’s a remarkable number in any era, but was huge back in those days. He later coached in the NHL with Oakland and the Los Angeles Kings, which is how I remember him most. (The photo at left shows Glover in his AHL days with the old Cleveland Barons, number 9 in the white uniform....)
Guyle Fielder joined the Black Hawks in 1951. He played a grand total of 16 NHL games— including playoffs. But get this: he netted about 400 minor league goals and like 1,500 assists. 1,500 assists. Who has those kinds of numbers, anywhere? That’s stunning. He too played until the early-to-mid ‘70s but didn’t spend time with any of the early expansion teams. I can’t help but wonder if he, too, simply liked being a top player and was comfortable where he was.
Dick Gamble originally came up with Montreal in 1951. He played almost 200 NHL games. Despite spending that much time in the NHL, he still managed more than 600 minor-league markers. Amazing. He scored one of his 41 career NHL goals with the Maple Leafs in the mid- 60s, though the Maple Leaf "Gamble" that I remember more was goalie Bruce Gamble. In fact, and I don’t actually remember this, but history reveals that Dick Gamble played one game during the regular season with Toronto in 1966-’67, their last Cup year. He retired after the 1969-’70 season.
Many Leafs fans will remember the current Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau as a top scorer with the Marlies in Ontario junior hockey in the very early 1970s. I saw him play with the Marlies a fair bit myself. He was a smallish, stocky, skill player. Drafted by the Leafs (to his chagrin, he was selected after Doug Jarvis, who Boudreau felt he should have been drafted higher than), he played less than 150 NHL games, but scored over 500 minor-league goals, most of them in the AHL.
In the more recent era, an example of this phenomenon might be Jody Gage, who was drafted by the Red Wings the same year they drafted Mike Foligno (1979), who as we all know later spent some time with the Maple Leafs in the early 1990s. Gage played only 68 NHL games, but had a highly productive AHL career, accumulating more than 500 goals.
I’m sure there are others that I’m not remembering, so feel free to send along any names and memories that you might have of players who fit this “category”.
It’s hard to believe the guys who played in the 1950s and ‘60s could not have played— and played well—in the NHL, certainly by the time expansion came around, if given the chance. Who knows why it didn’t happen?
But even today there are players, like Aucoin with the Marlies, who are stars in the minors but, for whatever reason—confidence, size, opportunity, or just being satisfied and recognized where they were—that success doesn’t translate to the next level.
Good for them, regardless. Hopefully, without NHL hockey, some will get noticed this year.