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Butch Williams Interview

Butch Williams 1974-1975

Q. This is Kyle from Vintage Minnesota Hockey sitting down with Butch Williams at the 2007 National Senior Hockey Championships at the Blaine Super Rink. I really would like to thank you for sitting down to answer some questions for us today.

A. Yeah, no problem, thanks, my pleasure.

Q. First of all, where did you play hockey before coming to the NHL?

A. Well, I grew up in Duluth and played youth Hockey there. And when I got to be about 16, I went up to Canada and tried out with the Winnipeg Junior Jets. They were in the Western Hockey League, and I also had an opportunity to go east to the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League in Oshawa. I went to Winnipeg, ended up going out to Oshawa and played about three years in Oshawa with the Generals, and they’re noted for producing players such as Bobby Orr and Eric Lindros and people like that. It was a good hockey experience. From there I turned pro with the Clinton Comets of the old Eastern Hockey League, and later in the year, after about three quarters of the year there, I signed with the St. Louis Blues and was assigned to their Denver team, starting my climb after that to the NHL.

Q. Did you ever dream as a young boy in Minnesota that you would ever one day play in the NHL?

A. I did; I did actually. My dad had been a professional hockey player back in the 30s and the 40s and he had grown up with the sport in Duluth and only had one hand, which was kind of a unique situation for him, but he bought a house right across the street from the rink where he grew up, it was called Lower Chester in Duluth, and I was the last person born in the family, and I had three brothers ahead of me and three sisters, and they all seemed to play hockey, and he encouraged us all to play hockey. My older brother Tommy played in the ’60 Olympics, won the Gold Medal, and it was then that I started to get inspired, thinking that I could do something. When he turned pro with the Bruins in ’61, I was about eight years old, nine years old, and that’s when I first thought I want to play in the NHL just like my older brother.

Q. That’s great. You just touched base on this next question a little bit while growing up but, tell me about your time as a child playing hockey in Minnesota. 

A. It was, you know it was unique. We had a tremendous youth program at Lower Chester when I was growing up. It was really, Duluth had been swept by the hockey craze back in the 50s. There was a fellow by the name of Bob Fryberger that was very instrumental in youth hockey in Duluth, and he had taken the youth hockey team to New York to the National Peewee Championships, and they won and then they won the next year when they hosted it in Duluth, and that just increased hockey so much among the youth in Duluth at the time that hockey just became something else, the sport to play for kids in Duluth. Lower Chester, the rink that I belong to, was an outstanding program from the mid 50s all the way up to about 1970, they were just a real, real topnotch hockey program. I actually didn’t play, didn’t lose a hockey game until I played Peewee A and we lost a game that first year that I played Peewee A, so up until that time I had never experienced it and neither had several of my teammates, and I can remember that we lost to a Glen Avon team from Duluth, and we sat down and cried after. I played with a lot of good hockey players growing up, had some really good coaches, including my father, people like Will Doit, Red Mundine, and others that you know taught us the game, and it was a great experience because we sat at Lower Chester and tried to emulate all the people that were older than us. And at the time there used to be teams all the way up through the Midget level which was basically high school, and even adult teams at every little outdoor rink. And so there was always hockey going on and we just spent hours and hours and hours at the rink.

Q. It’s kind of an art that’s lost in today’s youngsters. 

A.  Yeah it really is

Q. There is all these nice indoor rinks today such as the Blaine Super rink that we are at today. You may have already answered this for me here in this last statement, but which hockey player or person did you look up to as a role model?

A. Well, as I said, I learned the game from my dad. My brother Tom was just a hero of mine because he was not only a great hockey player but he was really a great brother as well. The team that I really liked as a kid was the Montreal Canadians. In the late 50s there were winning about five cups in a row there and they had tremendous skaters, which is how my dad taught us to skate and to stickhandle. He always said that "if we can control the puck, we’ll make the other team try to take it away from us."  We always tried to become good stick handlers and good skaters like the Canadians. So I really used to listen, we didn’t have too much TV back then. You know, the NHL wasn’t on TV and so we listened to the games a lot of times, and sometimes there were on short wave radios and things like that.

Q. On Hockey Night is Canada via the radio.

A. Yea, yea, exactly, and with old Foster Hewitt and listen to games. It was exciting stuff. Trying to emulate and visualize what was going on on the ice in these far-away places. You know it was something for a little kid in Duluth.

Q. Yea, sure, that’s great. How would you describe yourself as a hockey player.

A. Well, I don’t think I have the natural talent perhaps that my brother Tom did, but I was a more rugged player, pretty hard-nosed. I still hold the record for the most penalties minutes ever by a right winger, in California Seals history. I had a pinch hint for mixing it up at times. I never really went looking for fights too much, but yet if somebody did something that I felt was out of line I would certainly respond. When I was a kid, I was always a pretty good goal scorer. I think my real ability lies in my passing game; I’ve always been a real good passer and I like to set up. I like setting up a play and watching somebody score as much as I enjoy scoring myself. So it’s kind of a unique slant to the game. I know that a lot of people love to get that goal, but I just like to try to pull the people out of position and then feed it back to someone coming late and have them put that puck in.

Q. Speaking of passing you had a couple nice passes with an assist in the game today that I was able to watch, and also a real nice top shelf goal as well.

A. Yeah, he gave me a little room on that one. (laughing)

Q. Who were some of your favorite teammates from your playing days?

A. Well, I played with some good players. I played with Gary Younger on a line in St. Louis and he was a tremendous hockey player. I played and lived and with a guy named Bob Gasoff who was one of the toughest guys in the NHL at the time. Unfortunately, he died the second year that we were in St. Louis and had a motorcycle accident and died at a very young age. In California, I played with Jimmy Nielsen, the old Rangers defensemen who was a heck of a hockey player. In Edmonton, I played with a lot of veterans there, Bruce MacGregor, Al Hamilton, Norm Alman, among some really, you know players that were of notoriety. I just thought some of these guys, you know to be out there as a 21-year-old playing in the NHL with some of these guys that just a couple years before I had been watching on hockey night in Canada and the national broadcast here in the United States, it was just something else. One of my most memorable experiences was when we first played Boston in St. Louis one night, I think it was probably about my fourth or fifth game in the league, and my brother of course had played for the Bruins for about seven years with all the guys, and when I got out there for my first shift, Bobby Orr was on the ice playing defense, and Phil Esposito was playing center ice, and I can always remember this, Bobby Orr says “Hey, Butch, welcome to the NHL”, and Phil Esposito said something similar to that, "Yeah good to see ya here."  At the time I was just quaking in my skates, you know just because it was so nerve racking, one of the very first games, the very first times playing against them. We had a terrific game the night I played on line with Wayne Merrick and Floyd Thompson, and we actually shut down Esposito’s line, and it was the only time all year that anyone on their line didn’t get a point. We got beat 1-0, and I still have some, ahh, I had an opportunity that night to score a couple goals; and I hit the pipe on one, and I hit the knob of the goalie, and Joe Berris’ stick on another one. So I only had myself to blame. Kinda like tonight when I was taking the shot in overtime there. Yea, we had a lot of good experiences, lot of good memories from my days playing.

Q. That's a great story. It sounds almost like Orr and Esposito laid out the welcome mat for you in your first game in the league that day.

A. You know, sometimes people like that, we always talk about athletes being so ego-driven and everything else, but those guys, especially Orr is just so down to earth. I can still call Bobby Orr today on the phone and he will call me back within 24 hours usually and talk to me. If I need him, and I have used him as reference for jobs interviews and things of that nature, he’s always been gracious enough to sign autographs for my teams when I’ve been coaching youth hockey and things of that nature, he came out, when I brought a team to Boston years ago from the forerunner of the Minnesota Maroon and Gold Series. Gus Hendrickson and I starting that thing years ago, it’s called the North South Team. We got a team in Massachusetts and he came out to visit with the kids, and it was just a real highlight. Not enough can be said about some of these guys, you know Bobby Hull is another one just like him, Gordie Howe. Those guys that I played against, they were just outstanding. There are very few athletes that wouldn’t take the time to say "hi" and make sure that if a little guy was asking or a little girl was asking for an autograph they made sure that they signed that thing until every one of them was taken care of.

Q. That’s great to hear that. I know you already spoke a little about this already but in your opinion, what were some of the best hockey highlights of your career. 

A. Yea, you know, it could be the time playing against the Bruins was certainly one. I think the highlight of my career was being, my brother Tom was 13 years older than me. We were the first two American brothers to ever play in the NHL. Just by a very short period of time. Craig Patrick and his brother Glenn Patrick were the second. And it was odd, because their father, Lynn Patrick, had signed both my brother Tom and I to our first professional contracts when my brother was with the Bruins when Patrick was vice president out there and GM. And also when I was with St. Louis he was also in that position with the Blues. The time I got to play against Tommy was in, I was with the Seals and he was in his last year with the Washington Capitals, the last year of his hockey professional career, and we played a few games against each other. The most memorable one was the last one that we played in California, and they actually beat us for their only road win of the year. They had the worst record in the NHL that year, but they did end up beating us in that final game, and I think somehow I ended up scoring more points than him during the game even though they beat us. I was named first star of the game, he was named second star of the game, and after that we called up our father, RIP, who was listening to the game on short wave radio. He heard the whole thing and he was just beside himself that his two sons were named first and second star of an NHL game. That was just, that was something else.

Q. What a glowing moment for a father I suppose.

A. It really was, yea.

Q. What did it mean for you to pull on a USA sweater for the first time?

A. I think I’ve always had a special reverence for wearing our country’s uniform. I have worn it on two different occasions in the Canada Cup series in 1976 which was really the very first time that they allowed the best players from the top six countries in the world to play. So all the professionals were included.  And the next year I played in the World Cup Championship in Vienna and got the opportunity to play for John Mariucci on that team. I always had goose bumps whenever I pulled that US jersey over my shoulders, or over my head. It was just a unique moment of pride and an honor to be able to play on those teams, and I gave 100% when I was out there playing for the US teams. And I relatively had some good success when I did play for the US teams, so it was a tremendous opportunity, and I still have great memories of those times.

Q. What hobbies do you have outside of hockey?

A. I’ve just finished building a new house about a year-and-a-half ago. When I first got out of hockey, I got in a little bit of carpentry and learned how to a little bit of things here, and I thought it would be a great family project. We had a cabin on a lake outside of Duluth. My two older boys and my younger one and my wife were all involved in the project, and we had a great time building that. I’ve also done some gardening in the past. I’m a big collector of hockey and the origins of the game. I love the old hockey. I love the stories that surround the old hockey, what the fellows that made this game what it is today, what they had to go through, what they had to endure in the beginnings of the game. It wasn’t unusual, the Duluth Hornets for instance in the early 1900s, they were taking trains to get to games, taking dogsleds sometimes to get to different parts of Michigan to make it to games because the roads were impassable because of the high snowfall. And these guys, they weren’t pros, they were just out there playing and they had to go back to a regular job during the day, so I really, I just dig into the history of hockey as much as I can, and I pride myself a little bit on knowing stuff about the old game, and I really revere, as I said, the oldtimers that played the game.

Q. Sure, I have to reiterate again how that is how we met each other and got to sit down today for this gracious interview, along with my relentless search for old hockey history that I am trying to collect through the website. I again thank you for your help with that, and for your help with the origins of Duluth hockey history that plays a vital role in the history of Minnesota hockey .

A. Exactly, yeah.

Q. If there was one thing you could change about modern-day hockey, what would it be?

A. You know what, I think the god-darn goaltenders pads and the gloves and everything else has gotten too big. They don’t seem to be able to ah......It’s really hard to score today I think and the puck has to move side to side. Yes, they’re tremendous athletes, but you know if you look back to where the game was even 20, 30 years ago, there was certainly more room than that to score goals. It’s a great game. It really is a great game. I think sometimes, you know, I’m glad to see the rules were changed and they got away from some of the interference that was going on and a lot of that had just gotten out of hand.  Myself, I thought a lot of that had come from the European imports. Well, we never used to see too much of that. When I look back on the old films from the 50s and the 60s of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs and stuff, you don’t see a whole lot of stick work or a lot of hooking and stuff, but you certainly saw a lot of it with the Europeans. And what they did was they’d be kinda tricky with their movements and then kind of instigate you to do something in retaliation and you’d get caught for the penalty. Because they’d take big dives, especially in the international arena. So we had to be extremely aware of that when I played on the US teams that the Europeans were going to dive and certainly the European referees would call penalties almost immediately whenever somebody went down, you know thinking, even if they didn’t see the play they would call some of it because somebody had been down on the ice and they were complaining. So I think the game continues to evolve. People are faster, they shoot much, much harder today. I don’t think there’s quite as much perhaps stick handling as a whole across the board. Some of the people that are good are just tremendous hockey players, tremendous with the puck and what they can do with it, whereas now I don't think it’s as widespread across the board as it used to be. They used to have three center ice men on most NHL teams that were all good, good stick handlers, and not to say that there aren’t players today that can stick handle as well or better, cause they do, but I think that that’s one of the difference I see, but certainly they shoot the puck so much harder, the sticks are so much, I can see why the goalies have the bigger equipment now because of the way they shoot the puck.

Q. Did you find it difficult to retire?   

A. Well, yea, you know, I was, for me it was a real thing. I think I alluded to that earlier. I was a very outspoken proponent of the American hockey player, growing up American myself and it really opened my eyes when I went to play junior hockey in Canada and I had, even my teammates, I was fighting with them just because I was an American trying to break into the game, and they called me all kinds of names, constantly picking, running at me in practice. I had to protect myself in games. It was another.  Even worse there was only two of us in the league at the time. Chris Aaron's of Kitchener who played a little bit with the North Stars and myself. And they used to just go after us. And what happened with my own career was I continued to be outspoken about the American cause. I saw a lot of Americans get pushed by the wayside and didn’t get the opportunity when certainly they were better than their Canadian counterparts. And yet because they had so much money invested in a lot of the Canadian players as draft picks, they would release the Americans. Remember that was at a time of transition too in the early 70s, and the college hockey player really had to become a regular in the pro hockey rinks because they thought they were, you know the pro management at the time thought that they were a little soft. That began to change. But ah, ah I  just finally had had enough, seen so many players, and then finding it difficult myself, I played extremely well with the US team, I played well on the other teams I played with in the NHL, and I thought that I deserved a contract. I was ready to sign with Colorado, and when I raised the issue too vehemently during the Canada Cup Series, I started to take some flack. And the word got around that I was anti-Canadian, which I didn’t feel that I was really that way. In fact I was more like John Mariucci our coach and pro-American. But nonetheless, I kind of, the word got out and I didn’t have a job. I was literally black-balled and couldn't play. Couldn’t find a job anywhere but the low minor leagues or else going to Europe, and those options didn’t really appeal to me after I’d had success at the NHL level and at the international level, and just decided not to do it anymore. Just brought my lawsuit forward. Eventually I was thrown out of court. Judge Miles Lord here in Minnesota threw the case out of court for jurisdictional purposes, claiming that the teams that I sued at the time did not actually do business in Minnesota and that I would have to go to the individual states where they ran their hockey operations and sue them there. At the time that cost was prohibitive, and I just decided not to do it, and really kind of became disenchanted with the game for a number of years and didn’t play. Didn’t put on my skates for about ten years. Continued to be involved at the youth level coaching, but didn’t do much as far as playing. So it was kind of a ah, not a happy ending when retirement came.

A. That was unfortunate that stepping away made it hard for you. I suppose it would be father, and also your brother Tom, but what person or persons had the biggest impact on your career? 

Q. Yea, they really did, both my dad and, I always. My dad as I said had the one hand and he used to always say to me, he says “You know, I have one hand. If I can do with one hand what I did, imagine what you can do with two hands, he says so never give up”. And, you know, to hear that from somebody that does have one hand and played professional hockey, I should tell you that when I played in ’77 with the US team, and for John Mariucci, John was a rival of my father’s, and they had some storied fights in their days. But the one thing that Mariucci said was that my dad had the hardest wrist shot he had ever seen in hockey, was a tremendous respect, because John had played a number of years for the Blackhawks and played against some people in his day that had tremendous shots, including Conniker from Toronto, who was just a hell of a, they said he could break a two-inch board with his wrist shot. So, my dad was a real inspiration, so was my brother, who as I said was just a hero of mine, and he had probably the biggest impact. At the pro level, one of my coaches, the coach I had in St. Louis, John D. Calbott who had played with Montreal for a number of years was just a real inspirational-type of coach. I loved playing hockey for him. Marshall Johnston was our coach in California, another great guy. Glen Sather was originally my roommate in St. Louis and then became GM in Edmonton when I was there, another tremendous hockey person. I really enjoyed some of my relationships over the years with different people from the game.  

Q. When you step back on the ice, do you feel the rush again?

A. Absolutely. It is just fun. I get into it, sometimes I get a little bit too overwhelmed by it. I had a little scuffle yesterday with Gordie Roberts. Him and I got into it and it didn’t end up too well. Kinda went back and forth, even our sticks got raised against each other. But the competitiveness is still there. I’m 55 and I just, I don’t know what else I enjoy as much as hockey. The only thing I can say is, you know, my family. I enjoy my sons, watching them play, and I enjoy my time with my wife. But after that, to get out onto the ice and to feel the wind going through, and to tell you the truth I just put a helmet on, this last year was the first time I wore a helmet and had never worn one, but I had a serious concussion here by hitting the boards, I lost an edge, and last January I hit the boards really hard and had a bad concussion, so I  started wearing a helmet and just, it’s been, you know, kind of a thing I just can’t get enough of. I play all the time. I play probably about ten times a week and just go out there. It’s a great form of exercise and just I still enjoy it. We had a guy here, when we were competing in this tournament here, we had a fellow on the ice today, number 7, that was 86 years old and is a good friend of mine. I actually played hockey with his son years ago and I told him the other day I want to be just like him when I grow up. (laughing)

Q. When you look back on your career, what had enriched you personally?

A. I think just the fact that I know that I am part of a select group. There’s only 5000 people that have ever played in the NHL approximately, and I think that that's a certain pride goes with that. Again representing the US was something else. I just will never get over the fact that I was out there. You know, it’s funny to see, because I haven’t really seen all that much. A lot of the video from years ago is gone. There’s not a lot of stuff. They got a lot of stuff on the playoffs and what not, but our teams never made the playoffs so I haven’t seen too much of that. But I recently got some films from different people that shot some video of my play years ago. That’s been pretty interesting with that to see how I played and how the game has changed. It definitely has, but it’s been fun. It’s made me, I think, a better person. It got me involved with coaching, and I think youth sports in and of itself is just tremendous for young boys. And now with the girls, I’m a huge proponent of the girls playing sports. I think the girls need sports. I think that really helps them develop self-esteem outside of what they try to get from being liked by boys, and I think it’s just better all around from that side. I have enjoyed by time playing. I have enjoyed my time coaching. And I'd like to think I’ve added something to people’s lives to make them better by my having been involved with them at the youth level.

Q. That’s great to hear. Finally, what are you doing today?

A. Today I am a small business owner. I have been in the business game for about the last ten years.  I was as I said earlier, I’d kind of been in the carpentry trade for a while, then got into arena management. Took care of arenas for about ten or so years, also dabbled in some editing of small local newspaper, sports-oriented newspaper. But as I said, I’ve been a business owner for ten years. That’s extremely exciting because it’s a whole new thing for me. When I was growing up it was just hockey, hockey, hockey. Both of my parents never graduated from high school. It was one thing that they insisted upon, that we do. I never even attended college. I have one brother that graduated from college and the rest of us are just high school graduates. Today I see the importance of education as a major thing. That’s the thing about the business community is I’ve been able to use my mind, my mental capacities so much more than hockey ever required. I mean not that hockey you don't think out there but you do. But it's been a unique experience to know that it’s up to me whether I’m going to succeed or not and how I make my decisions and whether we have enough money to make things run. So far we’ve been successful and I’ve really enjoyed my time doing it and am looking forward to continuing it.

Q. Well I again cannot thank you enough for sitting down with me to do this interview. It’s been a pleasure talking with you also also corresponding with yourself via e-mail.

A. Thank you, Kyle. I am extremely excited by what you are doing. You are a relatively young man, and the task that you are undertaking to document the history of hockey here in Minnesota is a noteworthy accomplishment, and I wish you only the best success. And anything I can do to help you, I will continue to do so.

Q. Thank you so much, Butch. I appreciate it.