September 30, 2013

American Beauty: Tommy Williams

Head back to 1962. The Boston Bruins have a slick speedster and a talented scorer on their right wing. Number 11 is just a rookie, but he goes on to a lengthy NHL career thanks to his versatility. He can play all three forward positions and move up and down the lines.

But it is amazing he made the NHL at all. Tommy Williams, you see, is from Duluth, Minnesota. And that made him the only American born and trained player in the National Hockey League at the time.

Nowadays we are seeing Americans from even the sunniest states skate in the NHL. Back then there were a lot of reasons as to why Americans had not entered the NHL world back then.

Some believed NHL owners conspired to have only Canadian players. Others said American parents preferred their children get college educations, a route many of today's NHL hopefuls still pass on. Others correctly pointed out that at the time there just was not enough ice time and competition for many American players to have a chance at the NHL.

Williams take on the lack of Americans was this:

"Parents just don't want their children to become professional hockey players. They'd rather see them go to school, especially since there are so many Canadians. They say what kind of a chance do you have? Why do something that is so hard to accomplish when you can go to school and become something - with a lot less personal or physical injury involved."

Tommy didn't have to worry about that with his family. His father was Warren "Rip" Williams, a notable minor league star in America. He encouraged all his sons to play the game. Tommy and Butch made the NHL, while Jack also played pro hockey.

Tommy, the oldest, led the way and accomplished the unthinkable. After skating on a line with famous Christian brothers and winning gold at the 1960 Olympics, Williams joined the Boston Bruins organization. After a season and a half of apprenticing in the minor leagues, Williams joined the Bruins in 1962 and stayed in the NHL until 1976 (with two years played in the WHA). He played 663 NHL games, scoring 161 goals, 269 assists and 430 points.

"When I was a young boy I used to have the idea that someday I'd like to play in the National Hockey League. But I never really thought about it seriously until I went to the Bruins training camp. I never thought that I was good enough."

That is an odd assessment of his own chances given that the Detroit Red Wings had invited Tommy to their training camp when he was just 18. Tommy himself was quoted as saying "that didn't go so well" but his brother Butch told a story of the Wings wanted to sign him but, at his father's insistence, Tommy wanted a guarantee of a college education for him if pro hockey did not work out. The Red Wings balked at that idea.

Williams was asked if he ever felt out of place because he was the only American in pro hockey. He admitted life was tough when he played in the minors, as he played in Kingston, Ontario.

"Yes, frankly, I have," he told Marv Albert in an interview. "It's like anything else. When I was with the United States Olympic team, I was with other Americans and I felt in place. but, in the minors, I was with a bunch of strangers who had little in common with me. It was like going away to school in another country where you didn't know the language or the customs.

Once he proved himself in the NHL, things got a lot better.

"Today, of course, things are different. I've more or less proved myself. But in the past, the thing that was most annoying was the guys who would continually speak French. That's when i really felt out of it. I would sit in the locker room - and they would be talking back and forth - and I felt way out of it. They would laugh and sometimes I'd think they might be referring to me. It was uncomfortable."

Williams did see himself as a trailblazer, leading the way for future American stars, but it was not his sole motivating factor.

"I did want to make this league to prove a point. To prove that even though I am American, I had the stuff to make it. But most important, I have a family - which was my biggest worry. You know, you want to make things good for your family."

Williams played in Boston until 1969, then he was moved to the new franchise in his old backyard - the Minnesota North Stars. He enjoyed his best season statistically in 1969-70 (52 assists and 67 points) but then suffered a huge personal loss when his wife passed away. Williams was an outgoing personality but after his loss he became far more introverted. The angry Williams clashed with teammates and his coach, leading to his suspension and exit from Minnesota.

Williams bounced around the NHL and WHA until retiring in 1976. Further tragedy struck in 1987 when his 23 year old son Robert died. Then on February 8, 1992 Tommy himself passed away of a heart attack. He was just 51 years old. .

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