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The Strange Case of Tiger Williams



Some players seem to spend more time in the penalty box than on the ice. Sometimes called enforcers, goons, or thugs, these players are generally known more for their physicality and fighting than for their scoring touch. However, there are exceptions to this, of which the most extreme may be Dave "Tiger" Williams. The all-time NHL career leader in penalty minutes, Williams led the league in PIM three times, and six times eclipsed 300 penalty minutes in a season. In 962 career games, he amassed an incredible 3,966 penalty minutes, an average of over four PIM per game.

Williams came about being a tough guy naturally. His father boxed, and shared his knowledge o fighting with his sons. Tiger once said, “I'm the only boy in the six Williamses that didn't win an amateur boxing championship.” It is doubtful that fact gave any comfort to his opponents on the ice, however, especially when considering how Williams received his nickname. Dave once played in a youth hockey game that was officiated by his older brother. After a disagreement over a call his brother made, Dave punched his older sibling, and became known as “Tiger” from that day forward.

Nine players in NHL history have racked up at least 3,000 infraction minutes. Of those nine, it is probably fair to say that seven earned their keep entirely or nearly entirely as enforcers. Two, however – Williams and Dale Hunter – proved to be quite capable goal-scorers. Hunter scored 323 career goals and Williams lit the lamp 241 times. Because Hunter played more games, Williams’ goals per game average is slightly higher, and “Tiger” accomplished a scoring feat that Hunter never reached – a 30-goal season. In fact, Williams did not only do that once, he did it twice. Fittingly, Williams had a habit of infuriating his opponents after scoring by riding his stick down the ice.

Williams spent his first five-plus seasons in Toronto. During his tenure with the Maple Leafs he twice led the league in penalty minutes, but it was his last season with the Maple Leafs, the 1979-80 season, during which he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks that could be considered his “breakout” season. Before the trade, Williams scored 22 goals in 55 games. Only Darryl Sittler scored goals at a faster pace for the Leafs that season. After the trade, Williams notched eight more tallies to post his first 30-goal campaign.

The trade would prove to be beneficial to the Canucks. In his first full season with Vancouver, Williams found the net 35 times – a career high. In addition to once again leading the league in penalty minutes, he led his team in goals – not an accomplishment expected from an enforcer. For his efforts that season, he was named an all-star, and played on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy in the all-star game. Imagine this: the two men who share the NHL records for most 50 and 60-goal seasons on the ice at the same time with the man who holds the record for penalty minutes – as teammates, no less.

The next season, Williams’ goal production would drop again, and the 1980-81 season would prove to be his final season with 30 goals, but it was not his final season as a productive player. Though he scored only 17 goals in the 1981-82 season, Tiger was still an instrumental member of the Canucks team, which made its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in team history. Even though Vancouver was swept out of the Finals by the defending champions, the New York Islanders, the season could only be considered a success. The Canucks were not expected to fare as well as they did, and the outcome was a vast improvement over the previous season, when the Canucks were swept out of the first round of the playoffs.

Williams remained with the Canucks through the end of the 1983-84 season. After his departure from Vancouver, he spent four more seasons in the NHL, playing for the Red Wings, Kings, and Whalers during those years. After leaving the Canucks, Williams never led the league in penalty minutes, although he did post two more seasons with over 300 PIM. Ironically, he did not lead the league in penalty minutes in the year he posted his career high. In the 1986-87 season, Williams earned 358 infraction minutes, but was edged out for the penalties “title” by Calgary’s Tim Hunter, who edged him out with 361 minutes.

Tiger Wiiliams was the type of player that could make his opponents think twice in multiple ways. If someone wanted to get rough with one of his teammates, they had to fear the wrath of his iron fists. However, to write him off as “only” a goon was a major risk as well, since he was more than capable of slipping the puck past the goalie. Hockey has seen few players in the mold of Williams, and it seems safe to say will see few more. The case of Tiger Williams is a strange one indeed.


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Nice one Scott. I was actually thinking of Claude the Fraud Lemieux a lot lately and whether he deserves a crack at the Hall. Tiger, while not a HOFer on his best day was a nasty bit of work, like you pointed out he and Hunter were rugged nasty players who could score. Williams is in the top of the list of all time hated players who could really play, Lemieux while not the pugilist that Williams was a bit of a better scorer and I would rank him slightly higher, but Tiger was a heck of a player in his own right.

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I think all three of those guys fit very nicely into the group of players that you love if they play for your team, and you hate if they don't. When you look at guys like them, you find a lot of very interesting characters. They always seemed to know exactly which buttons to press. Guys like Williams, Hunter, and Lemieux add a lot of personality to the sport.

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That may not have been an exceptionally large goal tally for that era, but it was very high for a player with the style of Tiger Williams. You also have to take into consideration that had he not been traded in his 30 goal season, he would have been second on the Leafs team in goals and he led the Canucks in goals the year he scored 35. No matter how you look at it, that is impressive. Was he a world-class goal scorer? No. A good one? Yes. A good one for an enforcer? Very much so, like very few others.

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