LOS ANGELES — We were born 12 days apart in a hospital that has since been turned into a retirement home. We both had hockey in our blood, and on our minds, but the similarities ended there.
That’s because Justin Williams has gone so much further and achieved so much more than any kid growing up in Cobourg, Ont., more than two decades ago could have imagined.
It’s incredible, really. Somewhere in the fuzzy recesses of my memory I can recall a minor hockey game where my team was getting smoked. The score 7-1 sticks out, but there’s no way to verify that. One indisputable fact is that there was a forward on the other team we simply couldn’t stop.
I bet you can guess who that was.
To be a kid back then in Cobourg or neighbouring Port Hope, where Williams first played organized hockey, meant that you knew who Justin Williams was. In our small world, he had an aura about him. He was our best at the game that mattered the most.
However, in the much larger picture he was hardly unique. There are kids dominating at every level of minor-league hockey right across Canada and beyond; only the smallest percentage of them ever play one NHL game, let alone score an overtime winner in the Stanley Cup final.
Besides, our town never really seemed like the kind of place NHL players came from. Steve Smith, the former Edmonton Oilers defenceman, was raised there but otherwise it was pretty rare for someone from Cobourg to even graduate to junior. For us, hockey was basically a game that was played for fun and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In fact, it was typical for a town of 15,000 people at the time.
The minor hockey association was run by parents and committed volunteers, but the access to high-level coaching or skills training simply wasn’t there. This is an era, remember, when most families didn’t even have access to the internet.
What that meant for Williams is that he had to head elsewhere once it became clear that he was a cut above everyone else. Scoring a pile of goals and winning every game 7-1 only has limited appeal. He went on to play AAA for the Central Ontario Wolves and Quinte Hawks, but the NHL still seemed like a long way off — especially when Quinte cut him one year.
Even after getting drafted by the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League, he didn’t play much as a 16-year-old rookie. He was occasionally a healthy scratch that season and spent some time with a lower level junior team in Michigan.
But the dream never died.
“I’ve been cut from three or four teams in my career coming up and it was hard for me to get to the next level,” Williams said Friday. “That goes with a lot of guys. The attitude is ‘You’re not going to break me, you’re not going to get the better of me. I’m going to show you.”‘
I still remember the day my dad phoned me to say that Williams had made the Philadelphia Flyers. We were 18 years old and I had just moved into a university residence in downtown Toronto. That seemed like a huge personal step at the time, so I couldn’t fathom that one of my contemporaries was going to play in the NHL.
As it turns out, it came as a bit of a shock to Williams as well.
He was drafted 28th overall by the Flyers after a breakout second season in the OHL, but never expected to earn a job out of his first NHL training camp. Even now he’s not completely sure what he did to secure a roster spot on a 100-point team that featured veterans like John LeClair, Keith Primeau, Rick Tocchet and Eric Desjardins.
“Opportunity and obviously working for it,” said Williams.
That might as well be the story of his life.
He has spent the last 14 years of his career in the NHL and never really attracted too much attention, even while twice scoring 30 goals and becoming a dependable contributor on a lot of good hockey teams. His name has been etched into the rounded edges of the Stanley Cup twice — boy did the people turn out on a rainy day in 2006 when he brought the trophy to Cobourg — and through it all Williams just continued to work.
“I’ve just always tried to improve myself and get better because I know there’s some guy just waiting to take my spot,” he said. “That’s the God’s honest truth. There’s always someone battling for your ice time, there’s always someone up and coming that could knock you off.”
Now he is reluctantly in the spotlight on the sport’s biggest stage.
By his own admission, Williams doesn’t really like to talk about himself. He’s been left with no choice after delivering in a couple more Game 7’s for the Los Angeles Kings this spring and scoring the overtime winner against New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in the Stanley Cup opener on Wednesday.
It almost looked like he wanted to crawl under the table the other night when teammate Drew Doughty referred to him as the Kings most underrated player by a “mile” in front of a packed press conference.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” said Doughty. “There are two guys on this team that I want to give the puck to, and that’s him and [Anze Kopitar]. When they have the puck, plays happen.”
Williams has 20 points during these playoffs and says he’s found the confidence to go out and make things happen in big games. It’s a pretty nice reward for a player who has been considered one of the NHL’s best at puck possession for the last few years, but doesn’t tend to rack up huge point totals.
Back in Cobourg, where his parents Craig and Denise still live, people are loving every minute of this Kings playoff run. It is yet one more reminder of what is possible if you work hard enough for something.
“Not everything is given to you,” said Williams. “It’s not on a silver platter. … I’ve been able to overcome a lot because I had good family stability and they believed in me. It was a gradual climb.
“I just wanted to be the best I can be and slowly I’m realizing it.”
From humble beginnings, it’s been quite a thing to see.