The NHL’s COVID-19 shutdown was ill-timed for everyone, but especially for Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams.
The Canes’ veteran winger returned to the team after sitting out the first half of the season to ponder his hockey future, and posted eight goals and 11 points in 20 games, including goals in five straight before the pause.
With the NHL and NHLPA reaching a tentative agreement to resume the season, along with a four-year extension of the CBA, Williams is ready to get back to it. He spoke with the media via Zoom Monday afternoon on a variety of topics. Here are some highlights of what Williams had to say.
On expectations for the Rangers and the Canes’ struggles against them: I don’t know what to expect. They’ve got a great team. They were rolling and playing extremely well over the past couple months. So I don’t know. All I can tell you is the fact that Washington had our number last year also. Playoff hockey is very different.
They played well and won four games against us this year. But I don’t believe we beat Washington last year in the regular season. You use that, but we’re certainly not going into this thinking we’re an underdog. We’re a Stanley Cup Contender and we know that.
On his biggest concerns going into return to play in the “bubbles”/Hub Cities: I think just as a general consensus my biggest concern and the team’s biggest concern is what if there’s an outbreak on the Carolina Hurricanes in game five and seven of us can’t play, or 10 of us can’t play, and you have a situation like that? What happens to the team? Is it a forfeit? Do you wait a couple weeks? That’s the main concern that we have.
It’s not playing the game of hockey, because we’re all going to go out there, we’re all going to give our best and battle for the Stanley Cup, but it would be extremely frustrating having no symptoms, coming down with the virus somehow and not being able to play. So that’s my general concern, I think that’s maybe what most guys are concerned about.
On John Forslund: Getting involved in other people’s negotiations is nothing you ever do, you never want to stick your nose into anything. I can speak to John, and John’s a great friend. When you think Carolina Hurricanes hockey and you put them on TV, you just expect to see John and Tripp all the time. It’s what you do. You tune in, you know his voice. You can go to the other room and know what’s going on.
He’s one of the best in the league for a reason. He got voted that. He’s great. He’ll continue to be great. I’m hoping he’s going to be here with the Hurricanes. I don’t know the latest on anything. But he’s a great friend and we’ll see what happens.
On the provision for NHL Olympic participation in the CBA Extension: I’m actually on a conference call right now. I think it’s really attractive. It’s growing the game. We get to promote our game and the best players are out there. I just think it’s great for the game of hockey to be able to showcase the best players and guys that we don’t normally see as teammates are teammates. It’s just so unique. The Olympics are a special event in itself. But having NHL players there, even as actual players, we love to see the best on best and that’s pretty special.
On discussions about the players’ responsibilities inside the bubbles to avoid infection: I think once you’re in there, you’re in there. I think more importantly, is during training camp here, is, and we’ve addressed this and we’ll address it in the next few days as well certainly with the start or training camp, is you need to tighten up the bubble of people you’re hanging out with. You need to make your inner circle pretty darn small, because what you do affects everybody else.
That’s pretty much the basis for what a team is anyway. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. But at this point, your weakest link can take your whole team. Guys need to be cognizant of that and we’ll make sure everyone is.
On constant reminders about being safe during training camp: Absolutely, I think that will be essential. If you’re out, you’re out. It’s kind of like getting injured. It’s like breaking your arm. You’re going to be out for an extended period of time. Is it going to be worth what you’re trying to do off the ice? It’s a little over two months that we intend to play hockey.
I think you can sacrifice whatever you’ve got to do in extracurriculars to win a Stanley Cup. And at the end of the day, you’re handing out the Stanley Cup. This isn’t just going out and playing some exhibition games. This is legit. This is what you play for; this is for it all. It’s a unique circumstance, obviously, but at the end of the day, you’re going to get your name on the Stanley Cup and no one can take that away from you. But yeah, if I see something or anyone else sees something, we’re going to be calling them out.
On what training camp may look like following the pause: One of the things you’ve got to remember is we’re all on the same playing field, which, for me, is good, instead of having to play catch up like I had to this year. I think the coaches aren’t going to come out there and just start killing you. It’s just going to be a gradual increase in time on the ice. Instead of skating three, four times, you might go up to five, six times. Just getting your hands back, getting your feet back, getting more acclimated to your system. Just refreshing your mind as to how the game is played and how we intend to play the game. Leadership is going to be a huge key. For these teams coming back, and the best leaders, I believe, will have the best success.
On the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto: I think, frankly, it doesn’t matter where we are. You could be playing in Finland. It just doesn’t matter. We’re playing on a rink that’s the same as everywhere else. As far as the cities, yes, Edmonton and Toronto are the hub cities. I think whether it be less people or the restrictions that they put on in Toronto and Edmonton are in better spots right now than a lot of the US is. There’s a lot of cases obviously coming up; everyone’s keeping track of that as well. I think that was generally why those decisions were made to have both those hub cities up there, because that wasn’t initially the plan.
On generating enthusiasm with no fans: If you came to some of our practices right now, we’re playing little two-on-two games and little three-on-three games and they’re pretty darn intense. So when I come and think of how this and how awkward it’s going to be, and it’s going to be awkward, absolutely. I’m going to be able to hear everybody on the ice, and if the microphones are really good, there’s going to be a lot of bleeping out.
It’s going to be different, but I don’t think you need to manufacture the enthusiasm. Once you get into competition, it’s game on. I just think the momentum swings that the crowd brings at our home arena, it’s going to be tough to live without. There’s no home-ice advantage. But I think this return to play is going to play well for us.
On his mental state when play stopped: Selfishly, I was really upset when we stopped playing. I’d just come back. I played catch up, I finally felt like I was kind of where I wanted to be. It got abruptly halted, and everybody’s in the same situation. But as professionals, you just deal with what’s come your way. That’s what you have to do. You roll with it, and everybody’s just adapting to what they can. I didn’t come back just to play 20 games. I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup, and, thankfully, I think that we’re going to get that opportunity.
On labor peace: The problem is nobody knows the future. You can have projections, you can put graphs up, you can think you’ve seen it all. But nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody knows how the game’s going to come back next year when it does come back. Is it going to be half fans, is it going to be half fans, is it going to be full houses? We don’t know. So you don’t know what the numbers are going to be like either.
All we know is we will be playing hockey; there will be labor peace, so long as this thing gets ratified for another four years, six years maybe. That’s good for the fans; that’s good for the TV audience, that’s good for the players. It’s good for everybody. We’re obviously excited about that. It’s awesome that they were able to do this. I don’t think a normal CBA negotiation goes this quickly, but both parties wanted it done and they wanted it done.