By Geoff Baker
Guyle Fielder still wields a stick three times a week. But now, instead of scoring or setting up goals with it, he uses it to shoot billiards in a recreational center at the Arizona retirement community he calls home.
Fielder, who is approaching his 91st birthday in November and is believed to be the second-oldest surviving member of Seattle’s professional hockey fraternity, is thrilled to see the Kraken become the city’s first NHL franchise. It has been six-plus decades since Fielder captained the minor-league Seattle Totems of the old professional Western League to their first of three championships under his watch.
The Kraken even built a replica of Fielder’s old dressing-room stall in the team’s season-ticket preview center. ‘Golden’ Guyle, he of 2,037 combined points in pro hockey – fourth all-time behind Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr – was up for the venue’s official opening. Nowadays, the six-time Western League MVP loves shooting pool, chomping on a cigar and extolling Seattle’s hockey merits, just as he did during his 22 minor-pro seasons and 15 career NHL regular-season and playoff games with Detroit, Chicago and Boston.
“I’m very happy for the city because it’s coming 50 or 60 years late,” said Fielder, invited to partake in pregame ceremonies at Climate Pledge Arena before the Kraken’s home opener against Vancouver Oct. 23. “They should’ve had the NHL there a half-century ago.”
Indeed, the NHL planned to launch in Seattle back in 1976, awarding Totems owner Vince Abbey an expansion team two years prior. But Abbey failed to make the down payment on the $6-million expansion fee, his financially struggling Totems – who had moved to the Central League for one season – folded in 1975 and the NHL’s offer vanished.
And Seattle, for 45 years, then wandered in the pro-hockey wilderness. It seemed an unbecoming end for a city that began the last century as a pro-hockey hotbed after the Seattle Metropolitans defeated the Montreal Canadiens in 1917 to become the first U.S. franchise to win a Stanley Cup.
That Pete Muldoon-coached team, led by stars Frank Foyston, Jack Walker and Bernie Morris, came an overtime winner away from another Cup in 1919 before the Spanish Flu pandemic halted a tied rematch series with Montreal and claimed the life of Habs defenseman Joe Hall. The Metropolitans, then playing in the Pacific Coast Association, competed for another Cup in 1920, losing to the Ottawa Senators.
By 1924, the team was done and so was the PCHA. Over nine seasons, the Metropolitans featured five future Hall of Famers – Foyston, Walker, Harry ‘Hap’ Holmes, Gordon ‘Doc’ Roberts and co-founder Lester Patrick.
It was Patrick and his brother, Frank, who envisioned bringing pro hockey to the West Coast and raided most of the Cup-champion Toronto Blueshirts to form the first iteration of the Metropolitans in 1915. The Patrick brothers were so convinced of hockey’s imminent West Coast success, they even kicked tires on a women’s league – with an accompanying Seattle franchise – in 1917.
The league never started, but the Seattle Vamps played a handful of one-off tournaments in 1921 before vanishing into the hockey ether.
By then, the Metropolitans had become a local fixture in the downtown Seattle Ice Arena. They’d captured the Cup over Montreal there in 1917 behind a six-goal Morris performance in a 9-1 clinching victory, with an overflow crowd of 3,500 in the 2,500-capacity building. “The lexicon of sport does not contain language adequate to describe the fervor of the fans who saw Seattle triumph last night,” The Seattle Times wrote. “The largest crowd that ever saw an ice game in The Arena stood on its feet and cheered until the iron girders of The Arena roof rattled as the Seattle team left the ice with the world’s title safely won.”
Kevin Ticen, author of the 2019 book When it Mattered Most: The Forgotten Story of America’s First Stanley Cup, and the War to End All Wars, said the team owned the Seattle sports scene. And that was during the city’s golden age for pro boxing and the University of Washington football Huskies. “The city was rapidly growing and searching for an identity at the time,” Ticen said. “The University of Washington football team hadn’t lost in six years and never got any recognition. So, you have this growing sense of frustration around that and perceived East Coast bias. And then, the Metropolitans show up, and they become the first Seattle team to be on a national stage, a continental stage, actually, when they play for the Stanley Cup. And they go out and win it, so suddenly, Seattle is getting this national recognition.”
At the time, Ticen added, Seattle was about even with Los Angeles and hoping to surpass San Francisco as the premier West Coast city. But much like the fate of the Metropolitans, those dreams faded fast as San Francisco remained ahead and L.A. surged past both.
Seattle hockey made a comeback at decade’s end when the Patrick brothers formed a minor-pro circuit – the Pacific Coast League – in 1928-29, with a Seattle Eskimos franchise coached by Muldoon and featuring Walker. The team lasted three years playing in the new $1.1-million Seattle Civic Ice Arena. But Muldoon, who’d never quite recovered from his Spanish Flu bout during the 1919 final, died of a heart attack in the first season, and the franchise and league struggled from there before ceasing in 1931.
Seattle hockey flourished again in 1933 when former Metropolitans great Foyston coached the new Seattle Sea Hawks in the fledgling five-team North West League. They reached the final against Vancouver in 1935, then won a return match in 1936 for Seattle’s first hockey championship since the Metropolitans’ Cup.
The Sea Hawks drew 4,000 fans a game, even more than the Metropolitans had, but Seattle, Vancouver and Portland left the league right after the Sea Hawks’ title to form another iteration of the PCHL. Foyston was fired as coach after a little more than one season, and the franchise – despite going to two more finals – was never as successful a draw. The team was sold and renamed the Seattle Olympics in 1940, but the league folded a year later.
The popular Foyston continued living in the Seattle region until his death in 1966. By then, minor-pro hockey had again taken root locally with a Seattle franchise embedded in a revived PCHL that would later rebrand as the WHL in 1952.
That franchise changed names four times in less than a decade, from Ironmen to Bombers to Americans to, finally, Totems in 1958. In 1964, it moved from the old Ice Arena into the Seattle Center Coliseum (later renamed KeyArena) designed by architect Paul Thiry for the 1962 World’s Fair.
Seattle’s Western League franchise nurtured some of the more influential figures in modern NHL history. Inaugural Philadelphia Flyers coach and future GM Keith Allen joined as a player-coach for the Americans in 1956-57 and became full-time bench boss the following season. The franchise was later renamed the Totems after a suggestion by Seattle Times columnist Hy Zimmerman.
After becoming Flyers GM, Allen hired another ex-Seattle player as his coach: Fred Shero, a D-man with the 1951-52 Ironmen. Shero later guided the Broad Street Bullies to consecutive Stanley Cups and three straight finals starting in 1974.
Incidentally, the New York Rangers team that Philadelphia beat in a thrilling seven-game 1974 semifinal was coached by another former Seattle WHL player. Emile ‘The Cat’ Francis appeared in net for 69 games as a Seattle American in 1956-57 and played briefly with the renamed Totems in 1959-60 before his NHL coaching and executive career. Francis was named Hartford Whalers GM in 1983 and – in a twist of Seattle hockey history coming full circle – oversaw the early career of Hall of Famer Ron Francis, who now serves as Kraken GM.
Emile Francis, 95, is the oldest surviving former Seattle pro hockey player.
As for the Flyers, they returned to the Cup final in 1980 under new coach Pat Quinn, a one-time rugged WHL blueliner who, in 1966-67, had helped launch the Totems toward their final two consecutive league titles.
Fielder, the oldest living Seattle pro besides Francis, led the Totems in scoring with 91 points that season and remembered the poise shown by Quinn during his 35-game stint as a WHL rookie that year. “He was a real tough player,” Fielder said. “A young guy, but he played tough. We all did that season.”
The Totems’ defense also boasted ham-fisted Noel Picard, a future St. Louis Blues stalwart immortalized in a famous photograph after sending Bobby Orr airborne with a trip just after the Bruins legend scored the 1970 Cup-clinching winner.
Seattle allowed a league-low 195 goals that season and won eight of 10 playoff games – while playing shutdown ‘D,’ holding opponents’ attacks in check.
Quinn wasn’t around for the 1968 repeat – the last of the Totems’ titles – but throughout an NHL career as a player, coach and GM, he advocated for Seattle as an NHL market.
After Seattle’s abandoned mid-1970s expansion effort, ex-Totems coach Bill MacFarland teamed with Microsoft executive and future Mariners baseball owner Chris Larson to make another NHL bid in 1990. They merged with a group headed by Bill Ackerley, son of Seattle SuperSonics NBA owner Barry Ackerley, and left for a Florida presentation before the NHL’s board of governors. But in a move never fully explained, Ackerley first addressed the governors without his partners, withdrew the group’s offer and headed out a back door.
There’s a theory he purposely torpedoed the bid so his father’s Sonics wouldn’t face NHL competition. A mid-1990s KeyArena renovation undertaken by Barry Ackerley reduced the venue’s seating capacity for hockey and made it impossible to lure the NHL.
By then, the only team playing hockey there was the Seattle Thunderbirds of the major-junior version of the WHL. The franchise had launched in 1977 as the Seattle Breakers, a team that came to have future Stanley Cup champions Ryan Walter and Ken Daneyko. A new ownership group renamed the team the Thunderbirds in 1985, and over the ensuing decades the club featured Petr Nedved, Patrick Marleau, Shea Theodore and Mathew Barzal. By 1989-90, the Thunderbirds started playing at what later became known as KeyArena, hosting a Memorial Cup in 1992.
Seattle made headlines throughout the hockey world in 1984 when 14-year-old wunderkind Glen Goodall became the youngest major-junior player ever. He spent six seasons with Seattle in the WHL establishing league records for games (399) and goals (262).
In 2003, the Thunderbirds gained a regional rival when the Everett Silvertips franchise launched 30 miles north of Seattle. The Silvertips made the WHL final in their debut season, and NHL graduates include Carter Hart, Radko Gudas, and Ryan Murray.
KeyArena, meanwhile, in 2008 lost the NBA’s Sonics to Oklahoma City and saw the Thunderbirds relocate 20 miles south to the city of Kent. The T-Birds made the WHL final in 2016 and won their first league title under captain Barzal in 2017.
After a handful of ill-fated false starts the past decade, Seattle finally became a serious NHL contender again when Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group showed up in 2016, pledging a private-funded KeyArena renovation that has since become a $1-billion overhaul. Only once the rebuild agreement was finalized did the NHL finally award the Kraken franchise in December 2018.
Seattle is seen as a sleeper market, between its understated hockey history and scores of transplants flocking from other NHL cities to work in its technology industry. Amazon bought the KeyArena naming rights, rebranding it as Climate Pledge Arena.
And Totems great Fielder is expected to be in attendance for the Kraken’s first home game.
Fielder had been recruited to play for the Seattle Bombers in 1953 by longtime local hockey fixture and then-WHL president Al Leader. In 1958-59, with the team renamed the Totems, Fielder – playing on a line with future NHL coach-GM Tom McVie – captained the squad to the first of its three league championships.
“I just wanted to play hockey,” Fielder said. “I didn’t care what part of the country it was or how the team was. I just wanted to go someplace that would give me a chance.”
Seattle gave that chance to Fielder and many others. And now, decades later, the NHL is finally returning the favor.
Note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News' Meet the New Guy issue.