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Duluth native Butch Williams reflects on NHL career

Butch Williams : Jeremy S

Butch Williams proudly stands in front of a mural of his father, Rip Williams (third from left), and three other founders of Duluth youth hockey in the Heritage Sports Center. Having grown up playing hockey on Duluth’s rinks, Butch’s dreams came true when he was called up to the NHL. Photo by Ilia Jones

 

On New Years Eve, 1973, Warren Williams Jr. of Duluth received a phone call he had been hoping for his entire life.

Williams, better known as Butch, had been called up to the National Hockey League (NHL) to play for the St. Louis Blues. After many years of hard work and dedication, Williams’ dream of playing in the NHL had come true.

Butch Williams was born in Duluth on September 11, 1952, and grew up playing hockey in Lower Chester Park.

The youngest child in the family, Williams grew up in a house right next to a hockey rink in Lower Chester Park, which is now named after his father, Warren “Rip” Williams. Butch Williams played for the Lower Chester team, which was notorious for winning.

Tom Wheeler, a Duluth native who grew up playing hockey for Congdon Park, recalls the old teams from Lower Chester Park.

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Butch stands on the ice of the Duluth Heritage Center, reflecting on how he stepped foot on an ice rink when he was just one year old. Photo by Ilia Jones

“Lower Chester was always at the upper end and was respected and feared,” Wheeler said. “They knew how to play the game.”

Williams decided to forgo playing high school hockey at Duluth East to play Junior Hockey. Junior Hockey is generally for players between the ages of 16 and 20 and is considered to be Amateur Hockey.

Williams left his senior year of high school and headed to Oshawa, Canada, which was an uncommon move at the time.

“Out of all the players in Junior Hockey in my league, which was the top league in Canada, there were only two Americans,” Williams said.

Williams played for the Oshawa Generals, a prestigious Junior Hockey team that has produced some of the NHL’s greatest players, including Bobby Orr and Eric Lindros.

Williams chose to take correspondence classes at the University of Minnesota from professor Harry Brown, who was also a professional hockey scout for the Boston Bruins. Williams said that Brown would send his class work to him in Canada.

Williams finished his Junior Hockey career in Niagara Falls, Canada, playing for the Niagara Falls Flyers.

“To give you a taste of how good the hockey was, there were about seven or eight guys off of each of those teams that ended up playing in the NHL,” Williams said.

Butch Williams : Jeremy S

A poster of Butch during his time with the California Seals in 1975 hangs above the Sill Arena in the Duluth Heritage Center. Photo by Ilia Jones

In a time where scouting players for the NHL was run strictly by word of mouth, Williams had something in his favor: his brother. Tommy Williams had already been playing in the NHL for a number of years.

From the time he was 10 years old, Williams was confident that he would make it into the NHL. But while he was growing up, Williams had teachers and friends tell him that his aspiration of playing in the NHL was just a dream.

“Personally, I took great offense to that; that they thought I couldn’t play or that I wasn’t good enough, and it seemed to drive me with more inspiration,” Williams said.

Butch joined his brother in the NHL, and right away, they had already made history. They were the first ever American brothers to play in the NHL together.

Williams recalls his first shift in his first ever NHL game that he played against a couple of his brother’s old teammates and NHL greats, Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. Both players welcomed Williams to the NHL in a friendly fashion.

“Phil Esposito said, ‘Welcome to the NHL, Butch,’ and then Bobby Orr said, ‘Yeah welcome, Butch, good to see you here,’” Williams said.

Williams played 31 games in his first NHL season with the Blues and scored 3 goals, paired with 10 assists.

The following year, Williams was scheduled to be sent to the Indianapolis Racers, a deal that would have made him a teammate of NHL great, Wayne Gretzky. However, at the last minute, Williams was traded to the California Seals, where he played 63 games and scored 11 goals with 21 assists.

Williams finished his professional hockey career in 1977 with the Edmonton Oilers. However, after his season ended with the Oilers, Williams played with the U.S. team in the World Hockey Tournament where he was named the most valuable player of the U.S. team.

Click on the Profiles of the Northland logo to find similar stories. Graphic by Rachel Kraft

Click on the Profiles of the Northland logo to find similar stories. Graphic by Rachel Kraft

After Williams ended his career as a player, he took up coaching. Williams coached a semi-professional team in California for a few years before he eventually moved back to Duluth and coached youth hockey from 1983 to 2001.

Although his professional career has ended, Williams still enjoys playing the game. He will be playing in the U.S. National Hockey tournament in Florida this April for the 60 and over age group.

“I still play all the time,” he said. “I play every day, and I love it.”

Click here to read about Rip Williams Memorial Rink, a rink on Fifteenth Avenue East in Duluth that was named after Butch Williams’ father.


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