“We’re done losing.”
With three words on media day in September of 2017, Justin Williams neatly encapsulated his statement of purpose for his return to the Carolina Hurricanes. He had come back for a reason, and he was determined to see it through.
Gone was the wide-eyed youngster of a decade earlier who memorably jumped up and down like he had just won $10,000 playing Plinko on The Price is Right as he jumped into the arms of Eric Staal on the night of June 19, 2006, just after depositing the puck in an empty Edmonton Oilers net. He was 61 seconds away from achieving the life’s goal of anyone who ever steps on a hockey rink, just five seasons into his NHL career, not yet a husband or father, still a few years away from earning his reputation as one of the most clutch players in the history of the league.
In his place was a grizzled, battle-tested veteran, specks of gray in his beard, who was widely recognized as one of the great leaders in the game. To have Justin Williams in your locker room in the latter stages of his career meant that you had expectations, and would be held suitably accountable for failing to meet them.
It’s astonishing, in retrospect, to consider that, until he was named Hurricanes captain by his old friend Rod Brind’Amour in 2018, that Williams had never — not once in 18 seasons — worn a leadership letter, at least on a full-time basis. It was almost as if the simple act of having Williams in the locker room was an acknowledgment of his leadership.
When the Hurricanes traded Williams in 2009, it was understandable. After all, in the span of the previous 15 months, Williams had torn two ligaments in his knee, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, and had his hand broken blocking a shot. The Hurricanes, loading up for a playoff run, couldn’t risk another injury. So off went Williams to Los Angeles, whereupon he soon broke his leg. The Hurricanes, fresh off a run to the Eastern Conference final, looked like they had made the prudent move.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the career graveyard: Williams almost never missed a game. In 2010-11, he missed nine games with a minor shoulder injury. In the next eight - eight! - seasons, he missed a grand total of three games.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes stumbled through a nine-year playoff drought. If you see a correlation there, you aren’t alone.
When he returned to the Eastern Conference in 2015, signing with the Capitals for two seasons, it set the table for a post-retirement spent in North Carolina. His son, Jaxon, was born in Raleigh in 2008, and Williams had long maintained relationships with friends within the organization. Not only that, he is a remarkably proficient golfer, with a near-zero handicap, and he would have no shortage of courses upon which to spend retirement patrolling. When he and his wife Kelly built a house in the area, the plan seemed apparent: go out on top, and retire to the place that had first made him a household name.
But in a plot twist, the Capitals decided to move on from Williams in the summer of 2017, following two Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons with no Stanley Cup to show for it. Suddenly, the post-retirement plan became a pre-retirement plan. Williams had unfinished business in Raleigh, and his old teammate, then-Hurricanes GM Ron Francis, knew that his team needed Williams to get them to where they hadn’t been since he left.
So back he came, nearly a decade older and with near-universal respect throughout the hockey world. The Hurricanes had not had a captain since Staal was traded more than a year prior, and Williams was the obvious candidate to fill his shoes.
At least, he was to everyone but Bill Peters. The coach’s harebrained scheme to name co-captains and keep Williams at arm’s length stunned everyone, most of all Williams himself.
But if Justin Williams is anything, he’s a professional, and he put his head down and got on with the business at hand. The Hurricanes stumbled along, with neither Jordan Staal nor Justin Faulk ever seeming entirely comfortable with leading a locker room that had within it a widely-admired leader.
When Rod Brind’Amour, the captain of the team with whom Williams won his first Stanley Cup and now that team’s coach, fixed the mistake the next year after Peters’ departure, it was obvious how much of a difference having the right people in the right spots makes. Williams, setting the tone for the room, deferred to his teammates for success and took failures upon himself. Never was the latter more apparent than after a late-season loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019, when the Hurricanes took a 3-2 lead into the third period only to lose 6-3.
“We pissed it away,” Williams seethed, nearly spitting his words out of his mouth in barely-concealed anger, “and it’s unacceptable.”
The impact that Williams had on the Hurricanes is evident in comparing Jordan Staal’s two tenures as captain. The Staal of 2017 bears little resemblance to the Staal of 2020, and after spending two seasons watching Williams control the locker room and lead by example, it’s not hard to see why. One needs only look at the reactions that came flooding in after he announced his retirement:
19 NHL seasons, 1,264 games played, three Stanley Cups, the Conn Smythe Trophy...and four Biscuit Cups. What a career for one of the best leaders I've ever met. Happy retirement @JustinWilliams! pic.twitter.com/Y6LP3zYKvG— Pace Sagester (@PaceSagester) October 8, 2020
Class. Confidence. Clutch. Character.— Mike Sundheim (@MikeSundheim) October 8, 2020
Congrats Willy! See you around. https://t.co/pwrgrAqV1I
Thank you, Coach. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/oV0IY5Xi96— Carolina Junior Hurricanes (@JuniorCanes) October 8, 2020
But it wasn’t only with the players that Williams had a key role. Brind’Amour leaned heavily on Williams as the conduit between the coach’s office and the locker room. He had a big fan in owner Tom Dundon, who wasn’t around when Williams returned to Raleigh but quickly struck up a friendship. He’s been involved with the Junior Hurricanes, serving as a volunteer coach during his sojourn last fall and undoubtedly returning to a role there helping coach his son now that his professional career is over.
Even among the media, Williams made people better at their job. He was dismissive of questions he felt weren’t up to par, but made time regularly for reporters who asked thoughtful, original questions. It could be a challenge to talk to Williams, in much the same way as it’s a challenge to talk to John Tortorella, because he expected everyone who dealt with him to have prepared in the same way for their job as he did for his.
That’s the lasting legacy of Justin Williams. His presence carried with it a Belichickian sense of “do your job,” in much the same way as Brind’Amour’s did. It’s no surprise they got along so well. The Hurricanes are in a better place now because they learned from Williams what it takes to win, and how to hold each other accountable. Justin Williams was many things, but he was a great teacher, and the lessons he imparted will be crucial to whatever success the Hurricanes attain going forward.