His nickname was “Tiger” for a reason. David Williams doesn’t really remember being called anything else.
"I've had it all my life," Williams told Greatest Hockey Legends’ Joe Pelletier. “It was partly because of my personality and partly because of the way I played when I was a kid."
At 5 years old, Williams was already making a name for himself as a tough player on his hockey team. His aggressive tactics didn’t change much between his child and professional years. That style was just a little more appropriate in the NHL.
Williams was drafted twice in 1974. He was the 31st pick in the NHL amateur draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the 33rd pick of the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers. He decided to take his talents to Toronto and quickly became known for the number of minutes he spent in the penalty box.
The enforcer broke several NHL and Leafs’ penalty records. He led the league in penalty minutes twice with 338 in 1976-77 and 298 in 1978-79. But that didn’t stop him from scoring his fair share of goals, too. He scored 22 goals in 55 games during the 1979-80 season before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks.
The scoring continued in Vancouver as Williams led all Canucks with 35 goals during his first full season. He wasn’t surprised by his offensive production.
“I always scored a lot," Williams told Pelletier. “When I started in '74, we didn't have many physical guys in Toronto. We had a lot of highly talented guys and I just started pitching in in that area. Then one thing leads to another in the NHL, and you get slotted into whatever script they think you should be in."
There’s no doubt that Williams filled his role as an enforcer. He holds the NHL record for most career penalty minutes, spending 3,966 minutes or just over 66 hours in the penalty box. His aggressiveness was in high demand.
Williams had a brief stop in Detroit, playing for the Red Wings for 55 games of the 1984-85 season before being traded to Los Angeles. It was with the Kings that he set his career high of 358 penalty minutes for a season. But he wouldn’t have done it any other way.
“If I had to do it again I would probably do it the same way," Williams told Pelletier. “The thing is, anybody can pretend they can pass the puck, shoot the puck and play on the power play. If you want to find out how great of an all-around player you are, go stand toe-to-toe with some guy 6-3, 230-pounds and then go play the next shift. Not many guys can do that.”
But Williams could.
And he did it well for 12 NHL seasons. Williams was traded to the Hartford Whalers during the 1987-88 season where he was then placed on waivers and released in 1988. He retired that same year. But that didn’t mean he slowed down.
During his last few NHL seasons, Williams tried his hand at writing. He co-wrote his autobiography, “Tiger: A Hockey Story,” in 1984 and a 101-page cookbook “Done Like Dinner: Tiger in the Kitchen in 1987.” He also founded the Tiger Williams Pro-Am charity golf tournament in Vancouver where he has helped raise more than $1 million for the Special Olympics. The annual tournament at Vancouver’s University Golf Club has become one of Canada’s highest-profile charity golf events. His contributions to Special Olympics during and after his professional hockey career earned Williams an induction into the British Columbia Special Olympics Hall of Fame in 2000.
Williams laced up a pair of skates again in 1993, but not for a comeback. He briefly came out of retirement to play one game for Roller Hockey International’s Vancouver Voodoo.
The former Red Wings’ enforcer also inspired a musical movement by Canada’s Hanson Brothers. The band wrote the song “Tiger Williams” in honor of its favorite hockey player and used it to campaign for his election to the 1996 Hockey Hall of Fame.
Williams didn’t receive the Hall of Fame bid, but if there’s ever an election for an aggressive enforcer who was familiar with the penalty box, there’s no doubt that Williams would be the first one on the ballot.