On August 16, 1958, Seattle's hockey outlook brightens with word that the Seattle Americans have been sold to a local group led by Marvin Burke, owner of Sportcaster Corporation in Seattle and developer of the Stevens Pass ski resort. Burke announces that the team will play the 1958-1959 season with a new name, the Totems, and a new infusion of cash. Led by star center Guyle Fielder, the Totems will go on to win the 1959 Western Hockey League championship, one of three titles in franchise history. But the club will disband in 1976 after 18 seasons, leaving Seattle without major professional hockey for the next 45 years.
The Game on Ice
Hockey was big in Seattle for much of the twentieth century. The Seattle Metropolitans drew standing-room-only crowds from their inception in 1915, yet just seven years after they won the Stanley Cup in 1917 the team lost its downtown arena because the site worked better as a parking garage for the new Olympic Hotel. Four years after the "Mets" disbanded in 1924, they were succeeded by the Eskimos, and the Civic Ice Arena, built in 1928, often was filled to capacity. The Eskimos folded after three seasons and were replaced by the Sea Hawks, who folded after eight. That left amateur hockey as the only hockey for seven years in the 1940s, and still crowds flocked to the Ice Arena for Sunday doubleheaders featuring the likes of Isaacson Iron Works, the Boeing Bombers, and the Wonder Bakers.
Professional hockey returned in 1948 when the Seattle Ironmen, an amateur club, moved into the pro ranks in the Pacific Coast Hockey League, a 10-team circuit with clubs in California, Oregon, Washington (Seattle and Tacoma), and British Columbia. When the PCHL became the Western Hockey League in 1952, the Ironmen were renamed the Bombers, and on September 23, 1953, the team acquired 22-year-old center Guyle Fielder from the Detroit Red Wings, a seminal moment in Seattle sports history.
The Ironmen and Bombers were owned by Frank Dotten, an indefatigable hockey man who served as the club's "licensed owner, manager, ticket-taker, strategist, chauffeur and financial angel" ("Misery Among …"). Dotten even became the coach for a while, after firing Danny Sprout midway through the 1950-1951 season, but he finished that year $40,000 in the red. In February 1952, under the headline "Sordid Money Matters," Emmett Watson wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
"Frank's total nut, excluding ulcer sedatives, comes to about $110,000 per season … Frank's payroll runs around $3,000 per week. The transportation bill comes to $12,000 for the season, about $8,000 of which goes for his three long prairie trips. The hockey league, still in its financial swaddling clothes, has a keep-your-own gate arrangement, instead of the tradition 60-40 split between home and visiting clubs. Another item of expense … is the amount of 15 percent, which goes for rental of the Ice Arena, plus the $4,000 it costs for ushers, guards, ticket sellers, ticket takers and janitors. As we go to press, Mr. Dotten figures he has to get 3,000 paying guests into the Ice Arena to break even. The place seats 4,400, so if 1,400 laggards stay home, Frank is in a pretty kettle of halibut" ("Sordid Money Matters").
After the Bombers finished in last place in 1953-1954, hockey disappeared from Seattle entirely. The club suspended operations and the franchise was placed in abeyance for a year while Dotten scrambled for investors. The Bombers loaned Fielder to the New Westminster Royals, and Rudy Filion (1927-2011), Seattle's fan favorite, went into temporary retirement. Reported the P-I on June 4, 1954:
"After a few highly successful years here during and after the war years, the amateur club Ironmen headed by Frank Dotten suffered a gradual but steady decline. The club fared well enough during the first pro year (1948) but then saw its attendance drop from over 100,000 to less than 50,000. Changing the nickname to Bombers two years ago failed to stir up needed interest. Not even after [Gene] Walby and other businessmen joined forces with Dotten and injected a nice bundle of cash into the club was there a pickup in attendance. Walby hoped to induce the fans back to the arena by purchasing more outstanding players, but when faced with 'impossible operating costs' set up for next season, he and the other owners decided to call a halt" ("Seattle Hockey Club Drops …").
"A Completely New Operation"
When hockey returned in 1955, the club had a new owner -- TV and radio mogul J. Elroy McCaw -- a new infusion of capital, and a new nickname, the Americans. Three years later, in a transaction announced on August 16, 1958, McCaw sold the franchise to a group of nine Seattle-area businessmen, and again the team adopted a new nickname. "They'll be the Seattle Totems in next season's Western Hockey League chase," Hy Zimmerman wrote in The Seattle Times. "The three-year-old name of Americans for the local franchise was erased yesterday … Marvin Burke, head of the group, announced the purchase -- no price was divulged -- and predicted major-league hockey for Seattle in five years" ("Ice Team Renamed Totems"). As for the new nickname, said Burke, "There was nothing wrong with the old name, Americans, but we wanted a label which would better connote the Puget Sound area. Also, we want to have a completely new operation -- new name, new owners, everything new except coach Keith Allen" ("Ice Team Renamed Totems").
"Burke, sportswear manufacturer, developer of the Stevens Pass ski area, and one of the city's most energetic civic leaders, has become Totem president," reported the Post-Intelligencer. "Other officers are: Frank Hixon, veteran ticket impresario and part-owner of the team here several years ago; Vince Abbey, attorney and former amateur hockey player; Gene Walby, sporting goods dealer and president of the club four years ago; Leo Lassen, longtime baseball sportscaster, former sports editor of The Seattle Star and current Washington Teamster columnist; Al Leader Jr., son the Western Hockey League president and district sales manager for Anaconda Wire and Cable Co.; George C. Newell, horseman and insurance broker; James B. Harwig, vice president and general manager North Coast Electric Company; F. Douglas Mayor, logging superintendent, Anacortes Plywood Company, former amateur player; Tim O. Wimmer, manager, Seattle Lighting Fixture Co., active in fish and wildlife circles" ("The Seattle Totems ...).
The new owners had abundant ties to local hockey. Hixon and Walby were former club owners, Lassen was the radio broadcaster for the Sea Hawks from 1933 to 1940, and Abbey and Mayor played in the amateur City League at the Civic Ice Arena in the 1930s and 1940s.
The group bought in at an opportune time. Fielder was in his prime at age 27, Filion was still going strong, and rugged winger Bill MacFarland was emerging as a star. Val Fonteyne, Gordy Sinclair, Gerry Leonard, and Tommy McVie were stellar support. The Totems finished the 1958-1959 season in first place and won 11 of 12 playoff games, the final eight in a row. "It's been a wonderful experience for us, a winner in our first season," Burke said. "We will try even harder next season to keep the title in Seattle. There are big hockey things ahead for our city. We may beat baseball in giving Seattle its first major-league sport" ("Allen Signs …").
The Hockey Boom in Full Swing
The Totems built a rabid following in six seasons at the Arena. They reached the WHL finals again after the 1960-1961 season, losing to Portland, and again after the 1962-1963 campaign, losing to San Francisco. They played their final season at the Arena in 1963-1964 before moving into the 12,700-seat Seattle Center Coliseum. Seattle Magazine described the scene at the Arena following a Totems goal:
"Instantly there is pandemonium. Women shriek and scream, hats soar, cowbells clank and a firecracker explodes. Finally, a king salmon arches over the wall and lands -- splat -- on a sheet of ice. This is hockey, Seattle style. Here, the hockey boom is in full swing. Until three years ago, the Civic Ice Arena was the only big-scale rink in the area, but now the Seattle Center Coliseum has supplanted it as the mecca for hockey buffs, and new arenas have opened in Burien, Woodinville, Shoreline and Bellevue ... During this same period, the number of amateur players hereabouts, who range in age anywhere from 8 to 50, has tripled to about 1,000. Because of the Coliseum's large seating capacity, attendance at pro games is expected to double this season, and Seattle's Totems are all but assured of major-league status within the next few years" ("Make Way …").
Alas, the NHL doubled in size in 1967, adding six new teams but spurning Seattle. "Seattle is not major league in anything else," explained NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell ("Big-League Hockey …"). But with a National Basketball Association team soon destined for the city, Bill MacFarland surmised that conflicts over playing dates at the Coliseum were the ultimate sticking point. "It was the dates," said MacFarland, who became Totems coach and general manager in 1967. "It had to be. What other major league sports besides hockey do Montreal and Toronto have? I'm not trying for a flat comparison between those cities and Seattle. They are Canadian hockey hotbeds in hockey climate. But Seattle, the way it has grown and will continue to grow, no longer can be sized up as anything less than major, in anything -- sports, entertainment, what have you. I know, that is sometimes hard for Seattleites to digest. But, if you travel elsewhere like a hockey team does, it leaves no question about Seattle. We only have to see ourselves as others see us" ("Big-League Hockey …").
The late Sixties were halcyon days for the Totems. After rolling to the 1967 WHL championship, they came back the next season with a retooled roster and won again, this time defeating their bitter rivals, the Portland Buckaroos, in the WHL finals. The Post-Intelligencer would call it "the finest hour of Seattle hockey" ("Totems Are Kings …"). But that was it for the Totems' glory days. While the ownership group, now led by Vince Abbey, pursued an NHL franchise, the Totems began a steady decline. Fielder thrilled Coliseum crowds for one more season; MacFarland coached two more years before leaving to become WHL president. After MacFarland's exit, the Totems cycled through five coaches in five seasons with little success. In 1972, their major league dreams on hold and their finances in tatters, they became a farm club of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
Losing the Long Game
On June 12, 1974, the NHL finally awarded Seattle an expansion team, to begin play in 1976. Meanwhile, the WHL folded, leaving the Totems with two years to prepare for the big leagues, but with no league in the meantime. They joined the Central Hockey League for the 1974-1975 season, but struggled at the gate. "To make a long, complicated, contentious story short," wrote Nicholas Cotsonika of nhl.com, "they folded, the NHL pulled the expansion team, and pro hockey left Seattle. The Totems sued, and after a lengthy court battle, the NHL won" ("Seattle NHL Expansion …").
Abbey insisted the city never got a fair shake. In 1975, he and Totems co-owner Eldred Barnes sued the Canucks and the NHL for alleged antitrust violations. The case dragged on for 11 years before getting tossed out. "When the Totems were formed in 1958, Seattle entered into an agreement with the Detroit Red Wings and later the Montreal Canadiens to acquire surplus players … Since that beginning, Seattle was continuously frustrated by the deceit and dishonest dealings of the NHL," Abbey wrote in 2015, shortly before his death. "From 1958 to 1975, the Totems played well enough to win three championships and play before more people than several NHL teams. Three players, namely Rudy Filion, Bill MacFarland, and Guyle Fielder, were better than the majority of NHL players. Their performances as Totems were spectacular in comparison" (Obermeyer, 6).
MacFarland advocated for Seattle hockey long after the Totems died. He put together a bid that was expected to secure an NHL expansion franchise for Seattle in 1992, but business partner Bill Ackerley pulled out of the deal at the last minute, slipping out a back door during meetings with NHL owners. "He double-crossed us. He admitted it," MacFarland said ("Blending of Board Work …"). After serving as WHL president from 1972 to 1974, MacFarland joined the new World Hockey Association, first as co-owner of the Phoenix Roadrunners and then as league president. He left hockey when the WHA and NHL merged in 1979 and spent his later years practicing law in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he died in 2011.