Amid a dozen or so of Rod Brind'Amour's former teammates and a few of his new players, one stood out as a member of both groups. Justin Williams arrived at the last moment and slipped away quickly on Wednesday, but he may play as pivotal a role in the future of the Carolina Hurricanes as the new coach.
Brind'Amour made it clear the co-captain debacle would not be repeated, and that he had someone in mind to serve as sole captain, even if he wouldn't name names. Williams, the team's captain in all but name last season and a high priest of the Church of Rod, would be the obvious choice, with no disrespect intended toward Jordan Staal, who did yeoman duty in the destined-to-fail shared captaincy.
Whether Williams is or isn't, there's no question he will be the main conduit from coach to dressing room, having not only played alongside Brind'Amour but absorbed and applied the lessons learned in a career that would take him to more Stanley Cup glory elsewhere. That may have been unappreciated and underutilized last season, but not under the new regime.
“I was a little surprised, but I still found my role within this team pretty easily regardless of what I had on my jersey,” Williams said. “Obviously, it helps when it's there, gives you that respect, not that I don't have it. It kind of means you really got to listen to me, not just maybe. Being in Rod's leadership group, absolutely, I'd love to be there.”
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And that respect is, clearly, mutual.
“(Williams) was our leader,” Brind'Amour said, flatly.
There was certainly a sense of nostalgia in the room, with players from past eras like Bates Battaglia, Steve Halko, Jesse Boulerice and Aaron Ward reappearing at PNC, along with current team employees like Erik Cole and Shane Willis. Cam Ward, his future with the team uncertain, stood in the back, as did Jaccob Slavin, whose future is utterly assured. Former team president Jim Cain was there, along with equipment manager and one-game NHL goalie Jorge Alves. Video coach Chris Huffine wore his Stanley Cup ring for the first time in eight years.
All of the former teammates were there not out of curiosity, but respect. This was a moment, an ascension, that caused them to drop whatever they were doing and go back to the arena, to see it with their own eyes.
For Williams, there was more immediacy to it. Snubbed a year ago, Williams is clearly an essential part of Brind'Amour's plans for holding players accountable and demanding more, a trusted ally working from the same set of principles. Just as Peter Laviolette trusted Brind'Amour implicitly to handle the dressing room, to look everyone in the eye before they took the ice to ensure they were as ready as he was, Brind'Amour appears prepared to hand that same responsibility to Williams.
“I think he's probably the biggest asset Roddy has in the room,” Cole said.
Still, it won't be as easy. As Brind'Amour acknowledged, his initial arrival was part of a determined effort by then-general manager Jim Rutherford to bring in elite leaders when he couldn't, in the pre-cap era, afford elite talent. He was surrounded by veteran leaders, some who wore letters, most who didn't, from Bret Hedican to Glen Wesley to Kevyn Adams to Ray Whitney to Cory Stillman and beyond. It was a group that could take a player who had lost his way -- even one who was a functioning NHLer -- and turn his career around through sheer peer pressure, with Brind'Amour leading the way, drill after drill, two-on-one after two-on-one, long after practice had officially ended.
That's something the latest incarnation of the franchise has lacked, and specifically why Williams was brought back as a free agent, only to be left out in the cold by Bill Peters.
“I'll be honest, I was pretty surprised by last year's decision, when it came time for the captaincy,” Cole said. “I thought Willy was, maybe not an easy choice, but with his credentials...”
“I'll say it,” Aaron Ward interjected. “He was the only choice. I can't believe they labored over that decision that frigging long.”
Just as it was time for Williams to come home a year ago, it's time for him to get the official recognition he was denied last fall. Brind'Amour can't do what he wants to do with the Hurricanes without him.
“If we had 20 of him, we'd be slow, right? But we would win,” Brind'Amour said. “I can't say enough good things about him. I guess maybe I have to watch it now that I'm the coach and you can't have favorites. But he's one of my favorites.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock