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Justin Williams announces retirement from NHL after 19 seasons

The end of the road has arrived for the veteran who returned to the Hurricanes three years ago determined to make the team “relevant” again.

Jamie Kellner

Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams, who returned in 2017 to the organization where he won the first of his three career Stanley Cups, has announced his retirement from professional hockey.

Williams, who turned 39 four days ago, spent parts of eight seasons with the Hurricanes, broke the news to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in a series of tweets Thursday afternoon.

“This game has brought me so much that I will never be able to repay it,” Williams said in the statement. “I’ve never once taken for granted the privilege it is to play a game for a living, and that is probably why I was able to play it professionally for as long as I have.”

Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 1999 NHL Draft, Williams made his debut at age 19 in October of 2000. He was traded to Carolina on January 20, 2004, for Danny Markov, and memorably scored the empty-net goal in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final that sealed the victory to clinch the championship for the Hurricanes, the first and only one in team history.

Williams remained with the Hurricanes until the 2009 trade deadline, when he was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings in a three-way trade that brought former teammate Erik Cole back to Carolina. It was in Los Angeles that Williams had his greatest success, winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs in 2014.

Williams was widely renowned as “Mr. Game 7” for his playoff heroics in win-or-go-home games, a nickname he disdained but one fully earned. He holds the NHL record for points in playoff Game 7s with 15, and sported a personal 8-1 record in those games over the course of his career.

When the Kings elected to move on with a rebuild, and without Williams, in the 2015 offseason, Williams took the opportunity to sign with the Washington Capitals. During the two-year contract, the Capitals won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, but never advanced past the second round.

That set the stage for an emotional return to the place where he first reached the top of the NHL mountain. The team broke the news of Williams’ signing at Summerfest in 2017, and it was widely assumed that Williams, who had never been a captain - or even worn a letter - in his career would be the heir apparent to succeed his friend and former teammate Eric Staal as Hurricanes captain.

He talked like he expected that to happen, telling the media at the 2017 media day “we’re done losing” and making it clear that he intended to lead the charge to drag the Hurricanes back into NHL relevancy after nearly a decade of wandering in the wilderness.

But it was not to be, as Williams was left on the outside looking in when then-coach Bill Peters named Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk co-captains, again freezing Williams out from the leadership structure of the team. Unsurprisingly, the master plan backfired, and Williams missed the playoffs for only the second time since 2009.

But when Peters skipped town for Calgary and Williams’ former teammate Rod Brind’Amour took over as head coach, he wasted little time fixing the mistake. Williams was named captain, and he thrived, posting 51 points at age 37 while leading the Hurricanes to a playoff spot for the first time since 2009 and a first-round matchup with his former team in Washington.

Predictably, the series went seven games, and like clockwork, it was Williams who earned the primary assist on Brock McGinn’s game winner in double overtime to send the Hurricanes through to the seventh round.

The renaissance and playoff run in 2018-19 seemed to take a lot of the wind out of Williams’ sails. Following the Canes’ elimination in a sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, Williams and his two children sat at his locker stall, the father consoling his children before he spoke to the media. He spent the first half of the 2019-20 season on the sidelines, pondering his future.

Ultimately, he decided to lace up his skates one more time, signing a one-year prorated contract on Jan. 7 and returning to the Hurricanes’ lineup on Jan. 20 against the New York Islanders. Fittingly, he scored the winning shootout goal.

Williams was clearly fighting time, but was effective in spots up until the season paused on March 13. When the qualifying round opened play back up in Toronto, he was raring to go, dropping the gloves with the RangersRyan Strome just three minutes into the first game. But unlike last season, there was to be no miraculous run for the Hurricanes, who were knocked out by the Bruins again, this time in five games.

And now there will be no waiting game whenever the 2020-21 season opens: the run is over, and Williams won’t be returning. True to himself, he went out on his own terms, and we are all the better for having been witnesses to one of the greatest clutch players in the history of the NHL.

The Hurricanes have issued a press release which includes Williams’ statement and adds:

Williams, 39, recorded 797 points (320g, 477a) in 1,264 career NHL games with the Hurricanes, Flyers, Kings and Capitals. He is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, winning titles with Carolina in 2006 and Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. Williams also won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2014, awarded to the most valuable player during the playoffs. The 6’1”, 184-pound forward tallied 316 points (128g, 188a) in 449 career games with the Hurricanes, ranking sixth in team history (since relocation) in goals and assists and eighth in points. He is one of nine players in NHL history to score 100 goals and win the Stanley Cup with two different franchises.

Williams was named the 16th captain in franchise history on Sept. 13, 2018. He played in 162 career NHL playoff games, registering 102 points (41g, 61a). The Cobourg, Ont., native recorded 15 points (7g, 8a) in nine career Game 7s, which is the most career Game 7 points by any player in NHL history. Williams’ teams posted an 8-1 record in Game 7s.