It's been almost eight months since Justin Williams sat in quiet respite in his locker stall after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final. His kids, Jaxon and Jade, hugged him and offered him matching red and white beaded necklaces, which he wore around his neck once he rose to speak to the media after his team bowed out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He sighed. He was visibly drained, and his emotions were raw and honest.
"The tank has been low for a long time. We've just been running on adrenaline and just sheer will. It's always tough to swallow when the season ends abruptly like that," he said. "We've got to go home. I just told my kids I was planning on going to Boston tomorrow, but I'll be home tomorrow after school. Life goes on."
Life did go on, for both him and the Carolina Hurricanes.
Williams announced in early September that he would "step away from the game." Mentally and physically, he could not commit himself fully to another season and another playoff run.
Not at the time, at least.
He took time to himself and to his family. He helped with Jade's homework. He coached Jaxon's hockey team.
"I missed hockey, but I certainly wasn't bored," he said in a Wednesday press conference. "Funny enough, when I said, 'Daddy might be home a little bit more this upcoming year,' my kids were like, 'No! Why?'"
Video: Justin Williams Returns to the Canes
Williams also kept an eye on his old team, his old teammates, his friends. He stayed in touch with head coach Rod Brind'Amour. He texted the guys when he thought they might need a little pick-me-up.
He came to games. He rooted on the team. He was a fan.
"You miss the little nuances that only we know about, the brothership and camaraderie that comes with building a team and becoming a team," he said. "They're your brothers, your friends, and you want to see them do well."
Williams still wasn't sure if he would play again, but he knew he couldn't stay idle - just in case. Quietly, he started skating and working out and skating some more, ramping up the intensity with each passing week.
"I just couldn't come right off the couch and hop into an NHL dressing room and think I could do that. I'm no dummy," he said. "I know that to be elite and play against the world's best, you can't just come off the couch after not playing for six months."
There wasn't an a-ha moment. There wasn't an instant of clarity. A lightbulb didn't suddenly flick on. But, the thought of returning never quite faded. The desire to get back on the ice in an NHL game only blossomed.
"Coming to games, it brings you back a little bit. You see the guys competing," Williams said. "It was just growing and growing and growing to the fact that a little while ago I was like, 'You know what? I think I want to do this.'"
He called President and General Manager Don Waddell and Majority Owner Tom Dundon and the rest - however long it took and however many twists and turns there might have been in negotiations ("My heart has always been here," he said, for what it's worth) - is history.
Video: Justin Williams Inks One-Year Contract with Canes
Williams officially put pen to paper Wednesday on a one-year contract with a prorated base salary of $700,000, plus an additional $1.3 million in potential bonuses based on individual and team performance.
"A lot of guys texted me last night, and it makes you feel wanted," he said. "That's great, but I feel this time, I want them more. I'm happy to be coming back."
The feeling is obviously mutual.
In Williams, the Canes are adding a talented, experienced piece to their group. The 38-year-old veteran has recorded 786 points (312g, 474a) in 1,244 career games. He is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion (2006, 2012, 2014) and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2014. He's a leader on and off the ice, and he's going to give it nothing less than everything he has.
"I'm focused right now on these next four," he said, as he used his fingers to count out the months through June, "these next five months of my career."
Wednesday was a day to welcome Williams back into the fold. The spotlight, though he admittedly shies away from it, was understandably focused on him. It had to be.
On Thursday, though, he'll get back to work, back in the locker room, back on the ice - with his team.
"Absolutely it's exciting. I'm thrilled with the opportunity," he said. "My adrenaline just gets more and more upbeat every day. I'll be excited to get back into the dressing room, see the guys and compete."