Long before Justin Williams won three Stanley Cups or played 1,000 games or scored on the first shift of his NHL career as a teenager, they told him he was too small to play for the best junior team in his hometown.
Well before everything stopped dead in Cobourg for a parade on a steamy July afternoon in 2014, Williams faced more than one defining moment where he was forced to decide whether it was worth continuing to chase his hockey dream.
But that steamy July day happened to be the same one they memorialized his biggest professional accomplishments on the town sign. Whether you’re driving in from the north on Burnham St. or the east on King St., you’re now greeted by the same message: “Welcome to Cobourg. Home of Stanley Cup champions Justin Williams & Steve Smith.”
Williams was bestowed the honour just five weeks after he’d accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy at centre ice in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t entirely clear which meant more to him. Instead of 20,000 fans at Staples Center, he stood in front of a couple of hundred locals at Victoria Park. Rather than shaking hands with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he watched then Cobourg mayor Gil Brocanier unveil a replica of the new town signpost.
The emotions were different, but even a stoic like Williams couldn’t disguise the fact it made him emotional.
“It’s pretty overwhelming for me. I’m just like all of you,” he told the crowd while standing on stage at the bandshell. “Just from Cobourg, a small town, and doing the best I can with what I’m given.”
The more you understand that last sentence, the more you will come to understand a career that defies easy explanation.
Williams was deemed too slight to play a regular shift for the Cobourg Cougars at age 16 and won a job with the rough-and-tumble Philadelphia Flyers before his 19th birthday. He was never an elite skater, never the top scorer or best player on any of his teams during 19 years in the NHL, and yet virtually every teammate he ever had would trade achievements in an instant.
Even the “Mr. Game 7” persona he privately wishes never came into existence can be traced to the way he was raised and supported by a tight-knit family in a town the orders its collars in blue.
There’s both an honesty to the way of life in Cobourg and the way Williams approached his existence in the world’s top hockey league. He was forever mindful that someone was gunning for his job and believed he continually had to prove himself.
Williams stayed present, did the work, embraced the grind and did the best he could with what he was given. He possessed a will that couldn’t be bent. And a passion that was unrelenting.
The kid from Cobourg set a goal of winning the Stanley Cup and achieved it. And then he did it again. And again.
“You can do anything with your life and nobody has the right to tell you that you can’t, even though they will,” Williams said in an address to the hometown crowd after that third Cup win in 2014. “Trust me: People will tell you you can’t. I’ve been told ‘no’ many times in my life, I’ve been cut from several teams when I was younger, but I persevered.
“Sometimes the word ‘no’ — or someone telling you that you can’t do something — is exactly what you need to hear to get yourself to the next level. Prove ’em wrong, believe in yourself.”
Imagine if Williams had decided to pack it in after the AAA Quinte Red Devils cut him loose? Or if he’d chosen not to go play Jr. C in Colborne when the Jr. A team in Cobourg had no use for him? What if he had stopped pushing when the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers sent him away for a stint with a lower-level team in Michigan?
Then there’s no parade, no name on the town sign, no “Justin Williams Hockey Camp” in Cobourg every July. There are likely none of the private acts of generosity he’s quietly known to perform in the community, either.
There certainly wouldn’t have been all of those nights in his childhood basement where his parents, Denise and Craig, performed the same ritual before watching him play more than 1,200 games: Lighting a candle, listening to the broadcast call from his first career NHL goal and linking fingers for good luck.
Most importantly, a town of fewer than 20,000 residents in Southern Ontario might never have come to appreciate one of its most influential homegrown role models.
When Williams paraded the Stanley Cup down King St. a few summers back, an overwhelming number of those lining the sidewalks were kids. After taking the microphone he urged them to “shoot for the moon — and when you get there, grab the stars.” He told them to train to be a champion: “The best construction worker, the best doctor, the best veterinarian, the best councilman, policeman, teacher that you can be. And trust me that it will feel real rewarding when you do.”
Like many people from small towns, Williams had to go elsewhere to realize his dream. He actually started playing minor hockey in neighbouring Port Hope and commuted to places like Belleville, Colborne and Vaughan while climbing the ranks, before eventually moving in with a billet family in Michigan once he graduated to the OHL.
He’s made NHL stops in Philadelphia, Carolina, Los Angeles and Washington, and became a dual U.S. citizen a few years back.
This current hockey season is basically the first one Williams has missed since he could walk. He’s kept in contact with the game by coaching his son Jaxon’s team in Raleigh, N.C., while also skating three or four mornings per week in case he decides to resume his NHL career after taking a hiatus in September to ponder his future.
That decision could be finalized any day now.
If Williams chooses to come back, he will be coming back for one reason only: To chase another Stanley Cup, to try to climb that mountain again, to give the folks back home another reason to throw a parade in his honour.
There’s not a soul in Cobourg who doubts he can make that dream a reality.