For avid hockey fans, the annual World Junior Championship is a highlight of the hockey season. Featuring many of the best prospects on the planet, the WJC has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1973. The brainchild of Murray Williamson, a Winnipeg native who moved to the United States to play for the University of Minnesota, his initial motivation was to promote junior hockey in the United States. “I had no idea it would grow this big,” Williamson said. “I knew it would get something going in the United States because the concept of high-level junior hockey had not taken hold here.”
Williamson helped form the six-team (Minnesota, Thunder Bay, St. Paul, Fargo-Moorhead, St. Cloud and Chicago) Midwest Junior League in 1973. To promote the loop, he created an all-star team to play an exhibition game against Peterborough of the Ontario Association.
“As an incentive to attract players, I thought we should get a world junior tournament going,” Williamson said. “I found out the Russians were holding a tournament in Leningrad. They added teams from Canada and the United States.” Among the players on Williamson’s Team USA were future NHLers Paul Holmgren, Gary Sargent and Dave Hanson (yes, of Slap Shot fame). Williamson had credibility when he approached those running the tournament in the Soviet Union since he was an all-American winger at the University of Minnesota and had also coached the U.S. entries at three world championships and two Olympics. He led the U.S. to a silver medal at the 1972 Games in Sapporo, Japan. The first tournament, which took place in December 1973 and January 1974, is as memorable for its travel follies as it is for the games. His American squad played a rematch in Peterborough, losing 6-4, and was to fly out of Montreal for Czechoslovakia where it would play two tune-up games. However, there was a snowstorm in Montreal, and by the time the team was able to travel, its equipment was left behind. The pre-tournament games in Czechoslovakia were cancelled, so it was on to Leningrad. “My bag never showed up, so I wore the same outfit for two weeks,” Williamson said with a laugh. “The thing I remember most is what an eye-opener it was for the kids who got the opportunity to play against other great hockey players their age from around the world.” The host Soviets won the event with a 5-0 mark while Finland won the silver medal and Canada the bronze. The Americans were 1-4. Their only win was 3-2 over the Czechs. Williamson had a hand in the second unofficial WJC, which was based in Winnipeg the following year with games also played in Brandon, Man., and Minnesota. The games were well attended in Canada but not so in Minnesota. Williamson, however, believed it was a worthwhile venture and did his best to promote the world juniors tournament. “The American hockey association was kind of cool to the whole thing,” Williamson said. “The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association was also lukewarm to it, but they saw how successful it was and decided to hold a second one in Winnipeg. They saw we had something going, and they wanted to build on it.” Williamson accepted a coaching position in Switzerland following the second tournament, and that was the end of his association with the WJC. AHAUS (now USA Hockey) took over from there. The first official WJC, under the umbrella of the International Ice Hockey Federation, took place in 1977. Williamson, now 80 and living in Minneapolis in the summer and Arizona in the winter, has fond memories of the event. “We really had no idea we were getting in on the ground floor of something that would grow into something so big,” Williamson said. “The truth of the matter is our initial goal was to promote junior hockey in the United States.”
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.