Fierce Tiger Williams was 'afraid every game'


Enthusiastic Vancouver Canucks hockey fans were all over Dave 'Tiger' Williams as the hockey team arrived at Vancouver Airport after Game 2 of the 1982 Stanley Cup Final.

Enthusiastic Vancouver Canucks hockey fans were all over Dave 'Tiger' Williams as the hockey team arrived at Vancouver Airport after Game 2 of the 1982 Stanley Cup Final.

Photograph by: WAYNE LEIDENFROST, PNG Files

Long before he was a broadcaster, Harry Neale spent 15 years as a coach and general manager in the NHL and the WHA. And while no one will ever confuse his record with Scotty Bowman's, he oversaw some of the game's legends in his time.

With the Minnesota Fighting Saints he coached Dave Keon, before he moved to the New England Whalers, where he coached Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty. In his one year in Detroit he coached a Red Wings team which featured a pair of young centres named Steve Yzerman and Adam Oates. And in his first year with the Canucks he presided over a team which featured rookie forwards Thomas Gradin, Stan Smyl and Curt Fraser.

Neale, therefore, has some perspective. This is what he says about Tiger Williams.

"He's the most competitive player I ever coached. And I don't mean fighting. I mean practice, preparation, everything. He was more talented than most people thought, but his desire set him apart. He hated to lose, whether it was drills or the Stanley Cup playoffs."

By way of illustration, Neale tells this story from a Canucks-Flames game in the early 1980's. Williams, it seems, took a healthy run at Flames star Lanny McDonald, who'd previously been his linemate in Toronto. Fearing another such incident would put the Flames on the power play, Neale attempted to reason with his combustible left-winger.

"I said, ‘Geez, Tiger, take it easy. I thought you and Lanny were friends,'" Neale recalls. "He turned around and said, ‘We're not f---ing friends tonight.'

"That was Tiger."

Williams, the larger-than-life character who accumulated a surreal 3,966 penalty minutes (almost three days, if you're interested) in an eventful 14-season NHL career, checks in at 31 on the list of the all-time greatest Canucks. His career in Vancouver was highlighted by a 35-goal campaign in 1980-81, when he also earned 343 penalty minutes, and a lead role in the Canucks' magic carpet ride to the '82 Cup final, when he contributed 10 points and, wait for it, 116 penalty minutes in the postseason.

Those, at least, are the broad strokes of his time with the Canucks.

But reducing Williams to a number on a list or a collection of statistics doesn't begin to capture the man or what he brought to his team. Williams is a lot of things and he wasn't always the easiest person to like. But know this. There was never a fiercer player in the history of the NHL and when he arrived from Toronto in a huge trade late in the '79-80 season, he changed the identity of the Canucks.

True, it didn't last and the Canucks, as is their wont, gave up too much in Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago to acquire Williams. But during his time here, the NHL's all-time leader in penalty minutes helped make the Canucks relevant and, for a time, helped change the way people looked at the franchise.

"Tiger made such a difference on that team," says Neale from his Buffalo home. "You can't imagine."

"People said I was fearless," Williams says. "Well, I was afraid every game I played. I was afraid I'd let down my teammates, my coach, our fans. I was afraid every day. That's the way it was and I think there were a lot of guys like that on that team. We achieved way more than people thought we could."

Williams is talking this day from his car on the way to Calgary. A self-described nomad, he divides his time between the Weyburn, Sask., area, Calgary, Vancouver and Prince George, where two of his grandchildren live. This summer, he lost his brother Len, a long-time high-school teacher and coach in Weyburn.

"I spend some time helping out on the family farm," he says. "Mostly I'm in Calgary and British Columbia. Just say I live out West."

A month ago, he was also in Toronto for the unveiling of Darryl Sittler's statue on Legends Row with the Maple Leafs. Williams is now 60 and says his health is "perfect," and suffers no ill effects from his many on-ice battles.

"I feel fortunate about everything I did in the hockey world," he says. "It gave me the foundation to do whatever the hell I want. But it's the same old story. You have to put the same amount of effort after the game that you did in the game."

And there was never any question about the effort Tiger put into the game or his impact on the Canucks.

Prior to Williams' arrival, the Canucks had made the playoffs three times in the first decade of their existence and never won a series. They were largely a bland collection of failed draft picks and nondescript journeymen who lacked a sense of identity and purpose. But that all changed with the arrival of Williams.

It helped that Smyl, Gradin and Fraser all broke in the year before the trade with the Leafs. But Williams, through a combination of his fiery personality and unrelenting combativeness, also sparked something in his new team. The Canucks of the early ‘80s weren't long on talent but their frontliners, particularly Smyl and Fraser, were hard-nosed players. Williams was in a different category but the lineup also featured players such as Ron Delorme, Harold Snepsts and Colin Campbell, who all played the game with an edge. Gradin and Smyl were indisputably the best players on the team but the Canucks came to reflect a lot of Williams' qualities.

"We were a hard team to play against," says Neale. "But we had to be."

"You look at all the guys on that team," says Williams. "I'll bet you three-quarters of that team is still involved in pro hockey. Why is that? We were a bunch of character guys. There's no doubt we had more character than talent."

And it all came together in the spring of '82. The story of the run to the Cup final, of course, is well known in this province but three decades after the fact, the events that led the Canucks to their meeting with the New York Islanders haven't lost their power or wonder. It started when Neale was suspended late in the regular season for punching a fan in Quebec City and the late, great Roger Neilson took over behind the bench. Then the L.A. Kings upset the powerful Edmonton Oilers in the Miracle on Manchester. Then Richard Brodeur got red-hot in the Canucks' net. And the Canucks rode the wave to the Cup final.

"I've never been with a team that over-achieved like we did in that playoff run," says Neale. "Most of our guys played the best hockey of their careers in those six, eight weeks."

"I think that the best thing about that team was everyone was on the same level," says Gradin. "Maybe we weren't the best players but we were a better team."

A better team that had some pixie dust working for them. Campbell, then a journeyman defenceman, now an NHL vice-president, scored an overtime winner against the Kings in Round 2 after he didn't score a goal in the regular season. Jim Nill, then a journeyman winger, now the Dallas Stars' GM, scored an overtime winner against Chicago in Round 3 and his shorthanded goal gave the Canucks a 5-4 lead over the Islanders in Game 1 of the final.

Sadly, that was the high-water mark for the Cinderella team. Mike Bossy would tie Game 1 late, then win it in overtime after a turnover by Snepsts. Game 2 was also close before the Islanders recorded a 6-4 win. Games 3 and 4, however, were not and the Isles would complete the sweep in Vancouver for their third of four straight Cups.

"I've always said the aroma of the Cup got into the Islanders' nostrils when we got back to Vancouver," says Neale. "There aren't many teams who beat you that you admire but I liked a lot about that Islanders team."

As for his own team, the Canucks had put some nice pieces together but they were never able to take the next step after 1982. Fraser was traded for Tony Tanti prior to the ‘83-84 season and while Tanti and Patrick Sundstrom were productive players, they changed the team's identity. Neilson was fired midway through the ‘83-84 season. The infamous Bill Laforge was brought in as head coach the next year and lasted 20 games. By then the franchise was in disarray and it wouldn't regain its footing until Pat Quinn took over the team in 1990.

"Once you get there you have to keep the nucleus together," says Williams. "For some reason, we started the next season with five or six new guys.

"A lot of franchises make the same mistake. They draft a guy who scored 60 goals in junior and they think he's Moses, when he's not ready to play. I think its important you smell the minors. That's when you find out how much passion you have for the game. It's the size of your heart that makes you a player. "

Williams would be dispatched to Detroit before the ‘84-85 season and grind out four more seasons before retiring in ‘88. When he retired, he asked his family — wife Brenda and kids Ben and Clancy — where they wanted to live and Vancouver was the unanimous choice. He's since been involved in a number of initiatives — the immortal Vancouver Voodoo roller hockey team, a spell in the Calgary oil patch, competitive trap shooting — but he's always carried a piece of Vancouver and the Canucks with him.

"I was happy about (returning to Vancouver)," he says. "Maybe it was a tough place to play but it's a great place to live. It's home."

Enthusiastic Vancouver Canucks hockey fans were all over Dave 'Tiger' Williams as the hockey team arrived at Vancouver Airport after Game 2 of the 1982 Stanley Cup Final.

Enthusiastic Vancouver Canucks hockey fans were all over Dave 'Tiger' Williams as the hockey team arrived at Vancouver Airport after Game 2 of the 1982 Stanley Cup Final.

Photograph by: WAYNE LEIDENFROST, PNG Files

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