CARY, N.C. — Along a quiet suburban street lined with covered porches and multi-car garages, past the hockey sticks strewn across the front lawn and a net flush against the curb, Justin Williams comes to the door riding an electric hoverboard scooter. “Big house,” the Hurricanes right winger says, bright lights flashing beneath his feet. “Got to get around somehow.”
He dismounts with a smile and moseys toward the living room. It’s a typical weekday afternoon, which is to say that chaos largely reigns. The two family dogs—Drago, a border collie, and Piper, a mixed breed—tear around the floor, itching to play fetch. Finished with his homework, nine-year-old son Jaxon tries to find batteries for an xBox controller while FaceTiming with a classmate before youth hockey practice. Daughter Jade, 6, asks permission to use the computer … and a snack, maybe, please? The television is paused on Caddyshack. Rodney Dangerfield is the only idle soul in sight.
Busy, as always. But home.
Those who know Williams easily understand why he signed a two-year, $9 million deal with the Hurricanes last July 1, spurning at least one richer offer elsewhere to rejoin a former team. (No, not because Williams and his wife Kelly had previously bought property along a nearby golf course; that was just a good investment in a hot area.) Now 36 years old with three Stanley Cups—plus an ironclad reputation for Game 7 heroics—Williams was choosing based on personal fit. And no spot assured more familiarity than Carolina. To wit: When the Flyers traded Williams here in Jan. 2004, his locker stall was flanked by fellow forwards Rod Brind’Amour and Ron Francis. They still work for the Hurricanes … as assistant coach and GM, respectively.
Still Williams sensed curiosity from others around hockey, wondering what led a coveted veteran to possibly ride out his career inside the Research Triangle, where the NHL team hasn’t reached the postseason since 2009 and attendance percentage ranks dead last in the league. As Drago returns a slobbery plastic ball to the table, Williams explains. “You always remember who you win with, and where you win, the people you won with,” he says. “That never leaves you. To see this team not make the playoffs in nine years is upsetting, for sure. You sense an opportunity to be part of something, to get it going in the right direction, to resurrect this area as a hockey city and not just a basketball town.
“We’re going to make that next step. We’re going to do it. I want people to look back at the end of the season and go, ‘You know what? They are a really good team. That’s why he went back there.’ That’s what I want people to get.”
The picture is everywhere at PNC Arena. Snapped moments after Carolina’s 3-1 win over Edmonton in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final that Williams clinched with an empty-netter, the celebratory scene represents the franchise’s crowning achievement. Sprawled on the ice front and center, Williams raises one finger and yells. Seated behind him, Brind’Amour rests a hand atop the logo on Williams’s chest. They walk past it daily outside the locker room now.
A dozen years later, Williams sees in that image a model of inspiration for the current Hurricanes, who held the first Eastern Conference wild card spot through Tuesday. He remembers when tailgaters flooded the parking lot and fans packed the upper bowl. “The interesting part is, a lot of the young guys now haven’t seen it when it’s good,” Williams says. “And it can be really good. Part of the reason for me coming here is trying to instill that back into this area. It’s the only professional sports team in town. It should be a damn hard ticket to find. People will come see it and love what they see.”
He is not the only person pursuing this enthusiastic mission in Carolina; new majority owner Tom Dundon has swept into town with changes ranging from postgame autograph sessions to the possibility of wearing Hartford Whalers jerseys, all geared toward fortifying the local fan base. But as the oldest member of the roster—and one of two players remaining from the ‘06 title team alongside goalie Cam Ward—Williams feels greater responsibility than most. “This team doesn’t make playoffs this year,” he says, “it’s a failure on my part and the team’s. We don’t want the same old story.”
Fresh off winning a second Stanley Cup and and the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy with Los Angeles, Williams took his first spin through unrestricted free agency and landed a two-year deal from the Capitals. Upon hitting the open market last summer following consecutive 20-goal seasons, Williams discovered a “radically different” landscape. “To be honest, a lot more teams called,” he says. For several days, the Hurricanes was not among the suitors. When Francis finally called, the sell wasn’t hard.
Conversations with Francis, Brind’Amour and coach Bill Peters reinforced what Williams already learned while facing Carolina in divisional play. The speed of emerging forwards like Sebastian Aho (20), Teuvo Teravainen (22) and Elias Lindholm (22) can “suffocate” opponents. The blue line is both young—no member is older than 26—and loaded with long-term core members such as Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin. Missing was someone who could “help mold those young guys moving forward,” Francis says.
“There was apprehension because we haven’t been in the playoffs for a long time,” Brind’Amour says of helping recruit his former teammate. “But the opportunity for [Williams] to be a leader on a team that needs that and can get to the next level, I think that’s what he wanted.”
The coach is running late. Between an accident on the highway and some light rain over greater Raleigh, traffic snarled headed east toward Garner Ice House. Hustling into the chilly rink, carrying a sheet of hand-drawn drills, Williams throws on his skates and a helmet. At 5:45 p.m., he takes the ice and blows a whistle, summoning the 9U Carolina Jr. Hurricanes. “What’s up guys?” Williams says. “You got me again.”
Work schedule permitting, he enjoys helping Jaxon’s team whenever possible. (Several parents rotate who oversees practice each week.) He is a chatty teacher, calling out words of encouragement, skating beside kids to help fix fundamentals. This is not far from how he acts at actual Hurricanes practices, always yelping during drills. Williams does not wear a letter on his jersey—those belong to Justin Faulk, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner—but his voice undoubtedly carries weight.
“He’s our leader now,” Brind’Amour says. “He’s had to take on that vocal side, because it’s something we don’t have. He’s the grandpa of the team and he relishes that.”
When he first arrived after the Philadelphia trade, then a quiet 22-year-old, Williams was tickled to learn that Francis had been drafted in 1981, the year he was born. “I was like, ‘Oh, this old geezer, old-timer, whatever,’” Williams remembers. “He told me it goes by quick. And here I am thinking today, F—, it does go by quick.” Recently Williams heard on the radio that he had moved into eighth on the active games played list (1,137) following Jaromir Jagr’s recent exit overseas. “Oh my god,” he thought. “Change the channel.” Next year, he will face an NHL rookie class born in ‘00, when the Flyers picked Williams No. 28th.
No question that he can still hang with the kids, though. For the ninth straight season, an NHL team is recording at least 53 percent of even-strength shot attempts with Williams on the ice, a streak matched only by Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar and teammate Staal. Two assists in Tuesday’s 7-3 rout of Los Angeles helped Williams keep pacing toward a 50-point season, which would be the fifth of his career. He also hit 10 goals on a scorching wrist shot against Vancouver last week, taking heed of the advice that his father had texted to shoot more.
Practice continues. A cluster of other youth players gathers at the glass, whispering about Williams. When the Jr. Hurricanes leave the ice at 6:45 p.m., some stick around to ask for autographs or pictures. “Fans loved him when he was here originally,” Brind’Amour says. “Now I think they’re falling in love with him again, because they see what he’s doing for us. If we make the playoffs, I know he’ll have been a key reason. Guys like that will put us over the edge.”
That remains difficult to predict amid the murky Metropolitan Division, with five teams currently separated by five points. Viewed another way, Williams says, “This year, more than any year I’ve ever seen, it’s wide open. Last year, you looked in the East, probably Pitt or Washington. There’s no powerhouse like that anymore. You look at your matchup and there’s no one that really frightens you.
“As a team, I feel that we’re trending upwards, not one that’s going backwards, going to have to retool. All the pieces are there. The team just needs to make that next step.”
Inch by inch, Grandpa Williams and his Canes.