For the Canes, Williams is the captain and ‘the man’

Williams, Canes back in playoffs

Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said clinching a playoff berth was a "long time coming" for the Canes but also noted "this isn't the end goal" after the 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena on April 4, 2019.
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Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said clinching a playoff berth was a "long time coming" for the Canes but also noted "this isn't the end goal" after the 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena on April 4, 2019.

Justin Williams always has that look in his eye, always a bit mischievous.

What did he recently say about storm surges being unpredictable? So, too, is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes.

One day, he might be hiding out in a laundry basket outside the locker room, dressed in a clown suit, jumping out to scare the bejesus out of teammates as they walked by. He did that on Halloween.

On game days, he can be the life of the room, judging the mood of the team, being thoughtful, being accessible, saying what needs to be said. And if the team does not play well and loses, he can be dour, sullen, accessible but all but spitting out his words as he bluntly frames the loss. No mischievousness then.

The Canes’ Storm Surge? Williams, as captain, has been the Svengali and mastermind of the postgame celebrations at PNC Arena that caused Don Cherry to go ballistic on Hockey Night in Canada, calling the Canes a “bunch of jerks.”

Cherry piously said Williams, the crusty veteran, the three-time Stanley Cup champion, someone respectful of the NHL and its hockey traditions, would never stand for such frivolous stuff. Williams, not as limber at 37 as he once was but limber enough, meanwhile had done the limbo at center ice in a Surge.

That the Canes are going back the playoffs for the first time since 2009 says a lot about this Hurricanes team and its makeup but also about its leader. Williams had not worn the “C” on his sweater until this season but has worn it well, just as Rod Brind’Amour believed he would when his first decision as a head coach was to make Williams the captain.

“Easiest one I made,” Brind’Amour said.

What has Williams meant to this team? Goaltender Curtis McElhinney, in his understated way, might have put it best: “He shows up.”

As the pressure games built up late in the season for the Canes, Williams was there. When he needed to be stern, he was. When some levity was needed, Williams could let his hair down a little -- we’ve all seen that asleep-for-12-hours hair look of his on Twitter and Instagram -- and ease the tension.

“He can break the ice if he sees the team is not relaxed enough before the big games,” center Sebastian Aho said, “and on the other hand can be tough when the time comes.”

He shows up.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams (14) hits the ice as he battles Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux (28) and Nolan Patrick (19) for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday, March 30, 2019. ( Chris Seward AP

With the Canes leading the New Jersey Devils 2-1 on Thursday, tantalizingly close to clinching a playoff berth, Williams blocked a Devils shot with his helmet, heading the puck like a soccer ball up into the netting, with five minutes left in regulation. Whatever it takes.

With his head? With his head.

A few minutes later, Williams made a play off the wall in the Canes zone that triggered a rush up the ice, Brett Pesce getting the puck to Nino Niederreiter for the score.

The Canes won 3-1. They clinched. Soon, Williams was standing in the room, his voice low, talking about how successful teams continuously fight for the “little inches” to get to where they want to go and how making the playoffs was just a start.

He shows up.

There are a lot of guys who do a lot of talking in locker rooms. That’s easy. Not many are 37 years old and can go out on the ice, play on the top line with Aho and Niederreiter, score 23 goals and put up 53 points. Williams has done that.

“It’s his will to win,” Brind’Amour said. “Certain players have that. He may not be the most talented. He certainly doesn’t skate the fastest or shoot the hardest. But there is that ‘it’ factor, that he doesn’t want to be denied. You can’t teach it. You just have it.”

When Williams became a free agent in July 2017, after two years with the Washington Capitals, the first person he heard from was Brind’Amour. Sign with the Canes, Brind’Amour implored his old friend and teammate on the 2006 Stanley Cup champs. Come back. Williams came back.

“I didn’t come here just to fade off into the sunset and not be relevant,” Williams said this week. “I came here because I sensed an opportunity.”

Many expected Williams would be the Canes captain from the jump. But the coach, then Bill Peters, wouldn’t give him the “C,” deciding to to go with co-captains Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal, creating an awkward, convoluted situation.

“Last year, he wasn’t the captain but he was the leader of this group,” general manager Don Waddell said of Williams.

The coming of a new team owner, Tom Dundon, soon resulted in a new head coach, Brind’Amour. Williams got the “C.”

In recent weeks, Brind’Amour has said numerous times that Williams’ season might be his best. That’s saying a lot in that Williams is in his 18th NHL season and has those three three Stanley Cup rings.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams (14) is congratulated by Nino Niederreiter (21), of the Czech Republic, following Williams’ goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Gerry Broome AP

“It’s because of what’s at stake and what his role has been,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s more on him. I didn’t expect the level of play he would have on the ice, the impact he would have on the ice. I knew it was translate into the room but he’s been one of our best players.”

Told of Brind’Amour’s “best-season” assessment, Williams had a predictable Williams response: “I’ve always said the time for reflection was at the end of the year.”

But wearing the “C” has been different. That’s a first in those 18 years, being put into that role.

“There’s more to it, right?” Williams said. “There’s more responsibility.”

Williams smiled. “More media I have to do every day.”

When the Canes win, Williams can stand in the room by his locker, the eyes sparkling as he hands out the praise. When the Canes lost a third-period lead and a home game to Tampa Bay last month, a surly Williams said his team gave it away. He didn’t use the word “gave,” opting for a stronger word, but used it to underline his point: good teams don’t do this.

There’s respect there, from everyone. His teammates voted Williams the recipient of the Steve Chiasson Award, given for his determination, dedication and inspiration. “That’s his teammates saying ‘you’re the man,’” Brind’Amour said.

The Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association also voted him the winner of the 2019 Joseph Vasicek Award for his cooperation with the local media.

When kids are allowed to visit the Canes’ room at PNC Arena, usually wide-eyed, a little scared, it’s Williams, father of two, who often is the one who makes them feel at ease. When the Canes make their annual hospital visits, Williams is the point man, again saying all the right things to keep the mood light, uplifting, as the players move room to room.

The question now is will Williams, who signed a two-year, $9 million contract in 2017, be back next year? With Brind’Amour the coach, you have to figure he will be. That’s something else Williams will wait to discuss after the season.

“First of all, he’s a great person, so it’s easy to follow what he does,” Waddell said. “He’s a great pro. He respects the game, respects what he has to do to prepare himself to be the best player. When you have those kinds of actions, regardless of what he says, his actions carry a lot more weight.

“He’s been great. He’s all in.”

He shows up.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.