Hudson’s Tommy Williams lived brilliant hockey life, weathered tragedy

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A painting shows Tommy Williams skating for team USA.

Nick Abramo, Sports Columnist

HUDSON – Some stars stay alight. Others, like the late Tommy Williams, need occasional re-illumination.

A Minnesota transplant to Hudson, Williams’ grand contributions to the game of ice hockey unfortunately slide further down the status bar with each passing year.

Williams’ Olympic gold medal from Squaw Valley in 1960 lost some luster in 1980 when the U.S.’ Lake Placid bunch became the golden darlings everyone remembers.

Another gleam-dampener came before the Boston Bruins’ 1969-70 season, when the franchise traded away fan-favorite Williams. 

Those Big, Bad Bruins, with Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and a cast of characters then immediately exploded to the city’s first Stanley Cup championship in 29 years.

Throughout most of those ’60s, Williams was THE trailblazer as the only American in a Canadian dominated sport. Nowadays, thousands of U.S. players stride into the NHL ranks with a scant few tips of the cap to Tommy.

Still, Williams’ legacy is intact, especially in Hudson, where he will likely never be forgotten.

“Tommy entrenched himself in the Hudson community from day one,” said former Hudson athlete and Marlboro High School coach Steve Jacobs. He’s now the Head Ice Hockey Coach at Cushing Academy.

Tommy Williams celebrates a goal with then 18-year-old future hockey legend Bobby Orr.

“He even brought 18-year-old Bobby Orr to our Hudson youth hockey banquet to speak,” Jacobs said of Williams. “He belonged to the Elks and volunteered for many charity events. He had many friends in Hudson and compared the people to his Minnesota friends.”

Williams’ first wife died in 1970. His son Bobby, a rising NHL prospect, died in 1987. Williams, himself, died in 1992. Sadly, those premature deaths are a part of the tale.

As a high-flying goal scorer for the Hudson Hawks in the early ’80s, Bobby got within a few short steps of a spot on the Boston Bruins roster before an asthma attack took his life at 23, leaving his family and fans in utter shock.

Now 51, Chris Williams, Tommy’s son and Bobby’s brother, witnessed most of those highs and lows.

“I didn’t equate my dad with being a great hockey player until it was too late,” Chris said. “People would say, ‘Your dad played in the NHL,’ but when he took us to the Garden, I would say, ‘Yeah, but I want to see Terry O’Reilly.’”

Tommy Williams skates with his son on an outdoor rink in Duluth, Minnesota.

Fortunately, since then, it’s been “really neat” for Chris to see lots of videos of Tommy’s games and highlights.

Chris has Tommy’s Olympic gold medal and Team USA jersey alongside his Bruins jersey. But two big items are missing — a New England Whalers WHA championship ring and a Boston Braves AHL title ring.

In his 16 NHL/WHA seasons, Tommy scored 192 goals with 327 assists for 519 points. He also played for the Minnesota North Stars, California Golden Seals and Washington Capitals.

Bobby, meanwhile, played for, among others, Westfield State, Salem State, the Fitchburg Wallopers in junior hockey, and the New York Slapshots in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League.

“With the Slapshots,” Chris said, “Bobby scored 45 goals in 40 games and was the rookie of the year. “After a summer league game that Bobby played in against a bunch of pros, [Bruins center] Craig MacTavish said to my dad, ‘Your son has a harder shot than Al MacInnis.’”

He elaborated, saying “As a young kid, it was hard for me to make sense of that kind of thing.”

“The Bruins, Oilers and Sabers wanted Bobby to try out and he wanted to go to the Bruins,” Chris explained. “In the summer of ’86, my dad asked [Bruins general manager] Harry Sinden to come and see Bobby in that summer league. Bobby scored a hat trick in that game and Harry said, ‘We’re going to sign your son.’ My dad was like a kid in a candy store. He was going to relive [his NHL experience] through his son’s eyes.”

Looking back at Bobby’s A-plus hockey grades, Jacobs realizes that with so much time passing, it’s easy for some to forget just how good Bobby was.

“Bobby was on the cusp of making the NHL,” he said. “He was dynamic and somewhat dominant in the Bruins rookie camp he attended. His skill-set was advanced in every way. He also had the traits you can’t teach, high hockey IQ and vision. And he could score. He had an NHL release, speed and a great, great attitude like his dad.”

A separated shoulder slowed Bobby’s progress, but there was a sense that an NHL call-up wasn’t far away. He was set to join the Maine Mariners, the Bruins’ AHL-affiliate, for the 1987-88 season before his death June 1.

“At the hospital when we found out he died, they asked my dad if he wanted to go in and see him and he said, ‘No, he was just too full of life,’” Chris said. “[Days later] I said, ‘Dad, we’re never going to see him again.’ He welled up, but never really broke down. He was such a strong pillar of the family. He died young, at 51, due to a lot of stresses in life. But I saw how strong he was and how he dealt with things that are difficult.”