After Half a Season Away, Justin Williams Couldn't Stay Off the Ice Any Longer

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RALEIGH, N.C. — On his first day back at his old job, Justin Williams was slouched behind the wheel of his Tesla, a bundle of hockey sticks in the back seat, weaving through late-morning traffic and reminiscing about his short-lived NHL hiatus. Upon announcing in September that he would “step away” from the NHL while weighing whether to retire for good, the 38-year-old right winger had immediately decamped to Costa Rica with wife Kelly for five days of sunshine and quiet. Upon returning here to Raleigh, while his former Carolina Hurricanes teammates slogged through training camp, he had settled into a fulfilling rhythm of “normal dad stuff” —attending school recitals, coaching sports teams, helping son Jaxon, 11, and daughter Jade, 8, with their homework ...

“Taking the time to enjoy and do basically whatever I want to do for the first time in a long time,” Williams said. “I had a lot of fun. If I wanted to go play golf, I could just go play golf.”

No longer. Beginning at 8 on this Wednesday morning, Williams had already sat through a routine physical exam; conducted a battery of skating and shooting drills at the Hurricanes practice facility under the supervision of assistant coach Dean Chynoweth; and passed strength coach Bill Burniston’s rigorous stationary bike test, twice pedaling half a mile in less than 60 seconds. And now he was headed to nearby PNC Arena to formally ink a bonus-laced $700,000 contract and officially rejoin the Hurricanes for the second half of his 20th NHL season.

“There’s only so many opportunities to play against the world’s best,” he explained. “One was staring me right in the face again, and I felt like I could do it still.”

Williams had clearly proved as much when he captained Carolina to the conference finals last spring, their best finish in a full decade. During the ‘18-19 regular season, meanwhile, he registered more points (53) than he had in seven years, averaged the second-most ice time (17:27) among Carolina forwards, and led the entire league in 5-on-5 shot differential (58.70%). But it all came to a crashing—and crushing—halt when the Bruins swept the Canes in the third round; after the decisive Game 4 in Carolina, an exhausted Williams asked team officials to bring Jaxon and Jade into the home locker room, saying that their presence was the only thing that could help cheer him up. Instead, the family sat at his stall and wept together.

After a summer absent any workouts but full of reflection, Williams announced his leave of absence on the eve of Carolina’s training camp. “That statement I made was completely accurate and honest,” he says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to play again.” But he still kept close tabs on the Hurricanes once the ‘19-20 season started, hitting the golf course with coach Rod Brind’Amour and partnering with owner Tom Dundon in doubles tennis, texting words of encouragement to struggling ex-teammates and occasionally showing up to watch them play.

“He’s so competitive, and he played so well, I thought that sometime before training camp, as it got closer, it might trigger [for Williams to return],” Dundon told SI.com. “I was wrong. But once the season started, he came with me to an early game. The way he watched it, the emotions he was feeling … we all feel them when things don’t go right. But we can’t do anything about it. And I’m thinking, ‘He can actually do something about it. He could’ve made those plays.’”

Around mid-October, as the Canes opened their schedule with a five-game winning streak, Williams started skating again, dipping his toes into the icy waters. “Not knowing if I was going to come back and play,” he said, but figuring that getting in shape was the first step if he ever wanted to do so. “So I could honestly tell teams, I’m not coming off the couch here.”

Before long, Williams was booking ice time for himself at local rinks, three to four times every week, and enlisting a cadre of retired Hurricanes to feed him pucks. Defenseman Tim Gleason, now working as a development coach in the team’s front office, came out. So did winger Erik Cole and goalie Cam Ward, both of whom hoisted the Cup with Williams when Carolina won in ‘06. One time, Ward briefly considered putting on his pads and mask and letting Williams whip shots at him, but feared that he might get too competitive and pull a groin muscle.

“That’s what retired guys say,” Williams told him. “Are you one of them now already?”

As time passed, it became increasingly clear to the Hurricanes that Williams wasn’t fully prepared to join Ward in collecting pension checks. While team officials weren’t allowed to supervise his workouts, they couldn’t help it if Williams happened to be skating by himself at their practice rink. “We had our spies on him,” general manager Don Waddell told SI.com with a smile. One of these was Burniston, who issued a glowing report to Waddell in December: “He’s in as good a shape as he’s going to be. He could play today.” Brind’Amour, a close friend who captained the ‘06 Cup team before slapping the C onto Williams’ No. 14 jersey as coach last season, felt similarly. “I’d be at the rink early and he’d be out there, messing around,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s what he had to do to get the juices going. In the back of everyone’s mind, we knew [there] was a real good chance this would happen, but he obviously had to make the final push.”

At the same time, Williams was relishing the freedom of his new life. No long road trips, no late nights, no missed school events, tons of normal dad stuff. A little while ago, Williams accompanied Jaxon’s team to a tournament in Boston and found himself on the opposite bench as former NHL superstar Jarome Iginla, whose son plays in the same age group.

“This is fun, isn’t it?” the 43-year-old Iginla asked Williams when they caught up afterward.

“Love it!” Williams replied.

But the tug to play again proved too strong. (For starters, Jaxson and Jade were overwhelmingly in favor of dad returning.) Prior to Christmas, Waddell contacted Williams to see if he was ready to return. “He said he was starting to feel really good,” Waddell recalled, “But he said, ‘Let’s get through the holidays and we’ll talk after.’” Finally, as the calendar flipped to 2020 and Waddell returned from watching the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic, word came from Williams that he was ready to discuss contract terms.

From there, everything was a formality. “This was probably happening,” Dundon said. “I would’ve been much more surprised if it didn’t.” Waddell and Williams’s agent Thane Campbell first touched base to exchange salary numbers on Saturday. Rough terms were agreed upon by Monday, followed by a day of fiscal finagling with NHL headquarters “because of the way they count bonuses toward your cap,” Waddell said. Boston and Toronto were reported to have made pitches, among other teams, but Williams never seriously considered anywhere else. “Ideally, yes, it was always the Hurricanes,” he said, and only the dotted line hadn’t been signed when TV cameras captured Williams in Dundon’s box during Carolina’s 5-4 overtime win against the Flyers on Tuesday, swapping tips on their chipping technique.

It remains to be seen where Williams will slot among a forward corps that has helped the Hurricanes control 54.37% of shots and 55.30% of scoring chances at even strength this season, tops in the league according to Natural Stat Trick. And how he will handle the rust of an eight-month layoff; until Carolina equipment manager/part-time netminder Jorge Alves suited up during his Wednesday workout with Chynoweth, Williams hadn’t even taken shots against a live goalie since last postseason. While it is unlikely that Williams will face the Coyotes, or even re-debut when L.A. arrives on Sunday, the Hurricanes believe that the Team Grandpa still has plenty to contribute to one of the NHL’s youngest rosters, which held a wild card spot at 25-16-2 (52 points) entering Friday’s home game against Arizona.

“Justin wasn’t going to do it just to be a spiritual leader,” Dundon said. “And we weren’t going to take him just for his leadership. It’s a big part of the conversation, but we’re here to put the best players to win the most games. He had to know he could help. He had to believe he could help.”

“Is he going to be that player after not playing for 7-8 months?” Waddell said. “Of course it’s going to take some time. He’s not a spring chicken either. But I think it’s a no-brainer too. We don’t have to give up an asset. We don’t have to find somebody to fit into this group.”

“Once he gets up to speed, I’m pretty sure we’ll get the old Justin Williams back,” Brind’Amour said. “Could he have done a whole year. I don't know. But he can crank it up for the last half of the season.”

But these are issues for a future date. As his Tesla swung into the PNC Arena parking lot on Wednesday morning, it was all about Williams. Waving hello as he passed the security desk, he headed downstairs to rink level, where Dundon, Waddell and other team officials were waiting to escort him to a noon press conference. As he entered the media room, camera shutters clicked and cell phones emerged, both from the rows of reporters and a crowd of organizational employees invited to see the show. He sat down at a table, bathed in the glow of stage lights, flanked by Dundon and Waddell. Two television screens glowed on the wall, each displaying a picture of Williams in a Hurricanes jersey and a two-word message for the rest of hockey:

HE’S BACK