Tommy Williams had a secret. And a half-century ago, what he had to say was a pretty big deal, so much so that it landed the then-Bruins forward on “I’ve Got a Secret,’’ one of America’s most popular TV shows of the 1950s and ’60s.
“Kind of funny to think about it,’’ said Chris Williams, 42, the fourth of Williams’s six children. “I wasn’t even born yet, and right now I’d love to find a copy of my dad’s episode somewhere. But he often told me what he [revealed] as his secret: ‘I’m the only American playing in the National Hockey League.’ ’’
Born, raised, and trained in Duluth, Minn., the fast-skating Williams debuted with the Bruins 50 years ago. On Jan. 27, 1962, he potted two goals in a 5-3 win over Chicago, and his career was off and running, his country of origin practically part of his name, “American Tommy Williams.’’
His trademark on the ice was his blazing speed, and fluid, effortless stride.
“Oh, yes, he was fast,’’ said Milt Schmidt, the 93-year-old Bruins legend who was both the coach and general manager during parts of the 7 1/2 seasons Williams played here. “I dare say, Tommy could hold his own out there. He was quick and good, a very good skater.
“Not as aggressive on the ice as maybe he could have been, but also not an enemy in the world. Really a great guy and a reliable player. No problem putting him out there.’’
It wasn’t that the NHL of the early ’60s was closed to Americans, but hockey was still perceived as Canada’s game, and the six-team NHL was all but an exclusive club for boys of the provinces and prairies.
Williams helped to change all that, carving out a long career as the first US-born-and-trained player to make a significant impact in the post-Frank Brimsek era. Brimsek, Boston’s Hall of Fame goaltender, was born in Eveleth, Minn., and retired some 12 years before Williams came to Boston.
“My dad’s been dead, what, just about 20 years now,’’ recalled Williams, who operates a financial-consulting company in Clinton, “and I can remember him sitting around with some of his pals, guys he played with, like Johnny McKenzie, and they’d talk about just how much they loved to play.
“I can’t tell you how many times my dad said, ‘Hey, I just loved playing, I would have played it for nothing.’ Of course, back then, they didn’t play for much more than that.’’
The Bruins today have only three Americans - Tim Thomas, Steve Kampfer, and Joe Corvo - a fairly low count compared with the rest of the league. As of Friday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 905 players had suited up for at least one NHL game this season and 210 were sons of the USA.
Even though Williams ostensibly broke the league’s invisible ‘employment line,’’ if you will, it wasn’t until the US won the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980 that Yanks really began to infiltrate the NHL. For instance, the Bruins roster of 1977-78 consisted of 30 players, 27 of whom were Canadian. Matti Hagman was the lone Finn. Bay Staters Mike Milbury and Bobby Miller were the only Yanks.
In the 1961-62 season, the sole Americans in the league were Williams and Charlie Burns, a dependable, well-traveled center born in Detroit who also was on the Boston roster for 1 1/2 seasons with Williams. Burns trained and played as a kid in Canada, while Williams was the youngest player on the 1960 US Olympic squad and entered the league after two pro seasons with Kingston (Ontario) in the Eastern League. Frontenacs defenseman Harry Sinden was one of his teammates.
Thomas, Kampfer, and Corvo are on the Boston books this season for slightly more than $8 million. Williams made $4,000 in his rookie season in Boston and earned his biggest salary, $50,000, in his final NHL season (1975-76) with the Washington Capitals.
Over 15 seasons, which included 663 NHL games and 139 with the WHA’s New England Whalers, Williams earned a grand total of $360,000, according to his son. That’s roughly a week’s wage for the Thomas-Kampfer-Corvo triumvirate.
In the offseasons, Williams worked for a plumbing contractor, often lugging cast-iron bathtubs up flights of stairs as a way of staying in shape. He retired to Hudson, where he had lived during his playing days, and spent his 15 years in retirement as a salesman, selling piping used in the water and sewer industry. He died of a heart attack while at home on Feb. 8, 1992, at age 51.
“I read one story where it cost the Bruins $1.98 to sign my dad,’’ said Williams, whose father left behind a meticulous scrapbook of his Bruins days. “Jack Riley, his coach with the Olympic team, called Walter Brown [then the Bruins president] from Minnesota to tell him it would be a good idea to sign this kid Williams. He called collect.’’
The call by Riley, Williams often told his son, was his big break, in tandem with the endorsement of Bruins scout Wren Blair.
“An American kid back then, I’m sure he needed more than one guy going to bat for him,’’ said Williams. “It’s just the way it was in those days.
“My dad was traded from Boston to Minnesota after the ’68-69 season because he blew out a knee and the Bruins were afraid he’d never be the same. But he worked like mad that summer and had a great year with the North Stars - 52 assists that season, third behind [Bobby] Orr and [Phil] Esposito.
“Scotty Bowman was the West coach [for the All-Star Game], and when it came time to pick a Minnesota player, he took Danny Grant. My dad was convinced Scotty didn’t like Americans, and he asked him, ‘Why not me?’ And Scotty told him, ‘We need a defensive forward.’
“Yeah, right, a defensive forward in an All-Star Game? Come on. It was more like, ‘Hey, you’re an American, we don’t want you.’ ’’
Williams finished with a career line of 161 goals and 430 points in 663 NHL games, and another 89 points in his 139 games with the Whalers.
“His last game with Washington, the Caps lost to Buffalo, 14-2,’’ recalled Chris Williams. “It was Dec. 21, 1975. He was 35, his back was sore, the team was terrible . . . and he just said, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough.’
“He told a reporter, ‘I wanted to go out in one big blaze of glory.’ Obviously, that didn’t happen, but he had great times, a great career. And he was proud to be the American who made it.’’
WORDS OF WISDOM
Chara’s advice reaches Seguin
Earlier this season, his game in a slight funk, Tyler Seguin conferred with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara about how to deal with the low-grade frustrations of an inconsistent game.
“He just told me whenever I am being frustrated with consistency - he knows that can be tough for a young player - I just have to get back to my foundation of what I am good at,’’ said Seguin, who was only 4 years old when Chara left Slovakia in 1996 to begin his climb to the big leagues.
“He always says that when he is struggling or having a frustrating game that there are two basic things that make him a good player. And for myself, it’s shooting and skating. So, that’s what I tell myself. Even before games, that’s what I am telling myself: ‘I need to skate and I need to shoot.’
“That’s my foundation. If I am doing that, then things work out.’’
Chara, 34, is at his best when he is a controlled, physical force in his own end, capable at times of controlling the entire back half of the sheet. He is, for the most part, a quiet captain, but not shy about imparting his advice, especially to younger players.
“When you are dealing with players of his age and the talent he has,’’ said Chara, “you see there is a guy who is extremely talented, skates extremely well, handles the puck really well, shoots the puck really well.
“Then on the other side, the work ethic, the hard work, the races for pucks, the battles - those are the things that are maybe not as up as the other stats. So he has to find a way to balance it.
“But he’s getting better and better. He’s learning that you have to be patient and stay with it, and eventually he will learn when to battle, how to battle, how to get himself into the game.
“You can’t really try to have a complete player right away. You have to give him time and eventually it will come.’’
Cold reception on Garden ice?
No telling when Tim Thomas will get his first start in the Boston net after the All-Star break. The Bruins are back on the ice Tuesday night with the much-improved Senators in town, just eight days after the 37-year-old Thomas pulled his Pennsylvania Avenue no-show. If some in the Garden crowd remain stewed over how he handled it, it might be in coach Claude Julien’s interest to go with Tuukka Rask Tuesday and again Thursday with the Hurricanes in town. That would leave Thomas well-rested, and perhaps a dozen or so news cycles removed from his hell-no-I-won’t-go stand, to face the Penguins here in Saturday’s matinee.
Dates with destiny
Look for the NHL bosses and the Players Association to make contact this week to plot dates to begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. “We’re not going to try to go in and try to rob them,’’ Blues rep B.J. Crombeen told Yahoo! Sports correspondent Nicholas Cotsonika. “And we don’t expect them to come in to try to rob us.’’ Cotsonika reports that the recent agreement between the league and the players over what should be shared from the $50 million the city of Glendale will have paid to keep the Coyotes will put $40 million into the mix over two years. The two biggest issues at play when talks begin: Will the NHLPA try to have the salary cap system eradicated, and will the owners try to trim back the 57 percent the players receive from all hockey-related revenue?
Schmidt on Dit
MiltSchmidt, the Bruins’ Papa Bear, recently spent a week in the hospital, treated for various respiratory and cardio issues. “Feeling better now and getting stronger,’’ said the inimitable No. 15. “Just glad to be here and still kickin’. ’’ Schmidt played on Boston’s famous Kraut Line with Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer. “And let me say it one more time,’’ said Schmidt. “No one was better to the Krauts than Dit Clapper.’’ Clapper, the Hall of Fame right winger, played 20 seasons in Boston and looked after his fellow sons of Ontario as if they were his biological sons. “That was especially true if Eddie Shore was after us,’’ recalled Schmidt. “With Shore, if you didn’t act like him, if you didn’t wear your trousers like him - well, you were in trouble. Invariably, he’d start after one of us, and it would be Dit who would get up and say, ‘OK Eddie, that’s enough.’ And that would be the end of it.’’
Hottest rumor around the All-Star break had the Ducks dishing Corey Perry to Vancouver for former Boston College goalie Cory Schneider, Mason Raymond, and the vastly overpaid Keith Ballard. Another one had the Bruins dishing Tim Thomas to Chicago. Perhaps that could be the University of Vermont special, with the Bruins sending their ex-Catamount to the Hawks for former Catamount Viktor Stalberg . . . Two team executives I spoke with last week said they would have mandated that Thomas appear at the White House with the Bruins, defining it as a team meeting. One said he would not be surprised to see the Bruins cut him free this summer in the two-week buyout period leading to July 1 free agency . . . A better idea for the All-Star Game: Award it to the city that wins the Stanley Cup. On All-Star weekend the following season, bring in the game’s best for a skills competition and fanfest. As for the game, stage it outdoors, pitting the previous season’s Stanley Cup finalists against each other in a regular-season game. That Boston-Vancouver matchup of Jan. 7 would have played well in front of 35,000 at Fenway Park and a national TV audience . . . Entering the All-Star break, four of the eight teams in the East holding playoff berths had allowed more goals than they had scored. Negative offense. A novel way to pick up points in the standings . . . Tim Thomas and President Obama, linked forever, each having orchestrated epic bailouts.