At 90, Marshall still embodies AHL’s long history

Photo: Matthew Manor/AHL

📝 by Patrick Williams

To speak with American Hockey League legend Willie Marshall on the rink floor of Hersheypark Arena is to take a trip back to a much different time.

The AHL of the 1950’s and 1960’s when Marshall dominated was one of arena orchestras. Of chicken wire surrounding the rink. Of the likes of the Baltimore Clippers, Buffalo Bisons, Cleveland Barons, and Pittsburgh Hornets on the schedule. Of Gerry Cheevers playing every single game in net for the 1964-65 Rochester Americans. Of an interlocking schedule with the old Western Hockey League as the AHL faced dramatic changes to the business in the mid-1960s. And of an era in which the AHL could claim the seventh-best team in all of hockey.

Players like Marshall helped to build a foundation for the AHL that has taken the league through a world war, the shake-up of the hockey landscape in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and all the way into the COVID-19 pandemic and across 86 seasons to become what will be a 32-team circuit stretching from Quebec to Southern California next season.

Marshall, who turned 90 on Dec. 1, ranks among the AHL’s top legends and broke into the AHL in 1952-53 with a 27-goal season in Pittsburgh as he chased a National Hockey League roster spot with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Name a major AHL record, and Marshall probably owns it as part of a 20-season career that also included stops with Hershey, Rochester, Providence, and Baltimore.

Marshall holds league records in goals (523), assists (852), points (1,375), and games played (1,205), marks that may never be broken. In 1956 he arrived in Hershey, where he would spend parts of the next seven seasons playing with and for the late Frank Mathers, the legendary Bears defenseman, head coach, executive, and member of both the AHL Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Marshall’s name went on the Calder Cup three times, and upon his retirement in 1972 his 71 assists and 119 points in postseason competition were AHL records as well.

Marshall also managed to play 33 career regular-season games with the Maple Leafs in an era of rare NHL job openings, but his main legacy will always be in the AHL. The league made Marshall an inaugural member of the AHL Hall of Fame in 2006, and the Willie Marshall Award was created in 2004 to be presented each season to the AHL’s leading goal-scorer.

Marshall’s Hershey roots date back to 1956, when he was only 24. Hershey, a 19-39-6 club in 1955-56, had missed the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season. Pittsburgh, their cross-state rival, had to halt play when their arena, Duquesne Gardens, closed. Bears management acted quickly: Hershey executive John Sollenberger, who had also served as president and chairman of the board for the AHL, was antsy. Sollenberger had issued a directive for the Bears to “unloose the bankroll and get a winner,” the Lancaster (Pa.) New Era reported.

First the Bears brought in Mathers in from the Hornets to step in as a 32-year-old player-coach. Then on July 5, 1956, the Bears acquired Marshall as part of a seven-player haul from the Hornets. Fresh off a 97-point season in Pittsburgh, Marshall fit the bill for the Bears. A star goaltender, Gil Mayer, joined Marshall in the deal as he continued a career that would also take him to the AHL Hall of Fame. In all, it was speculated that the Bears spent close to $50,000 to in player moves that summer (more than $500,000 in today’s dollars), according to the New Era.

In what was a compact six-team AHL, Hershey-Pittsburgh ranked among the league’s top rivalries dating to the Bears’ joining in 1938. Hershey and Pittsburgh met in the Calder Cup Playoffs in both 1953 and 1954, with each team taking one series. Hershey fans knew Mathers and Marshall well.

“We came from Pittsburgh in that big trade,” Marshall recalled, “and we were all cheering because Pittsburgh had an old arena. And of course, we played against Hershey, so we knew this was the place to go. So that became the greatest surprise in my hockey career to move to Hershey.”

Photo: Hershey Bears

Marshall immediately delivered, piling up 94 points in 64 regular-season games his first year in Chocolatetown as the Bears improved to 32-28-4 in 1956-57 before they fell in a seven-game first-round series to Cleveland, another long-time nemesis.

The following year they went 39-24-7 as Marshall hit career highs in goals (40) and points (a league-leading 104 in 68 games) to earn a spot on the AHL First All-Star Team. Then he ripped 10 goals in 11 playoff games to finish with 19 points as Hershey cruised past Providence and the Springfield Indians to win the club’s second Calder Cup.

Shortly after that 1958 Calder Cup run, Hershey traded Marshall to the Maple Leafs for another future Bears legend, Mike Nykoluk. Marshall was not away from Hershey for long, however, as the Bears re-acquired him from the Leafs in December 1958.

In that 1958-59 campaign, Marshall divided his season between the Leafs, Rochester, and then Hershey, returning to the Bears in time to carry them past Cleveland and Buffalo to their second consecutive championship. Mathers retired after the 1961-62 season, ending 10 seasons on the ice alongside Marshall; he remained behind the Hershey bench and even eventually traded Marshall, but the two share a bond as Hershey and AHL legends.

“I was close to Frank because of Pittsburgh,” Marshall remembered. “We got along really [well]. He was the coach, then the general manager, so it was great. I enjoyed Frank because he was very calm. He settled everything down. He knew what he wanted, the type of play, and he got it from the players.”

Shortly after losing a seven-game Calder Cup Finals to Buffalo in 1963, Hershey dealt Marshall, and he eventually found his way to Providence. There he played three seasons for the Reds before winding down his career with five seasons in Baltimore. As a 37-year-old for the Clippers in 1968-69, he still proved dominant with a 78-point season before closing out his AHL career with 10 games for the 1971-72 Amerks.

But the town of Hershey won Marshall over. He eventually settled in the area, and his number 16 hangs at Giant Center on a banner that he shares with another Bears legend, Mitch Lamoureux. Today Marshall, Mathers, Nykoluk, Sollenberger, and Lamoureux all are Hershey Bears Hall of Fame members.

“It was excitement,” Marshall said of playing in Hershey. “One word — excitement. And all the people were excited. The players were excited.

“It was hockey time. Saturday night. It was a great time [to play here] seven years. So I enjoyed it, because I believe it is the gold standard of the American League. No doubt about it.”

As much as the AHL has changed since Marshall’s time, in one very real way it is quite similar. Just like today, players of Marshall’s era faced demanding schedules and long bus rides in a battle to win games, capture a Calder Cup, and chase NHL jobs. But Marshall shrugs away all those challenges.

“[Those demands are] part of the game,” Marshall reasons. “It’s the game you love.”