He saw it at the last second, but at that point it was too late.
Shane Willis fell limp. His forehead made contact with the ice, and he began to bleed. He lay nearly motionless and barely conscious.
The promising rookie was sidelined with a concussion, beginning a string of untimely injuries that perhaps changed the path of his career.
“That’s part of the game as a player,” Willis said. “If you’re not on your game every single day, things happen that could maybe end it for you.
“You do look back at it and see decisions you made. Maybe if I would have made this decision, would that have changed my career? But you can’t live in the past. I just look to move forward.”
The clock was winding down in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The New Jersey Devils were leading the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 in the game and were 20 seconds away from taking a 2-0 lead in the series.
Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh fetched a center-ice dump-in. He found Willis streaking up the left side.
Peppered by a Devils forward at center ice, Willis couldn’t hold onto the puck. It bounced over to captain Ron Francis, and Willis reached in to regain control.
Like a freight train, defenseman Scott Stevens laid into the vulnerable young forward.
“Scott made a career of making that big hit and keeping his team in it. I knew as soon as the puck got on my stick, I was in a bad position,” Willis recalled. “Would I go back and change anything? No. I wouldn’t want to get hit like that, but that was the play to make. The puck was there, and I had to go in and get it.”
While Willis lay on the ice being tended to by trainer Pete Friesen, Rod Brind’Amour went after the perpetrator; Brind’Amour would receive the only penalty, a retaliatory cross-check.
Was it a clean hit? Willis answered with a confident yes.
“He had his shoulders down,” he said. “It wasn’t like he took a vicious shot to my head. It was as square of a hit as you could make and not deliberately hitting me in the head.”
Willis, helped off by Friesen and Francis, suffered a concussion and was sidelined for the remainder of the six-game series. Stevens became public enemy No. 1 in Raleigh, exacerbated by his first-period hit on Francis in Game 3. Francis stumbled to the bench, as he also was concussed.
Fans booed Stevens every time he touched the puck for years after.
“Well, that’s just the good, loyal fans,” Willis said. “You don’t want to see any of your teammates go down.”
Before the Hit
Willis was drafted 56th overall in the third round of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not feeling that Tampa Bay best fit his needs, Willis chose to re-enter the draft two years later. Carolina picked him 88th overall in the fourth round just months before they began playing in Greensboro.
Willis made his NHL debut on Feb. 5, 1999 in Washington. He played in six additional games for the Canes before being reassigned to New Haven.
In 73 games with the Beast of New Haven that season, Willis recorded 31 goals and 50 assists (81 points). He was named AHL Rookie of the Year, AHL First Team All-Star and played in the 1999 AHL All-Star Game.
Willis spent the majority of the 1999-00 season in Cincinnati with the Canes’ International Hockey League affiliate. There he scored 35 goals and posted 25 assists (60 points). By the conclusion of that season, he had skated in nine total games with the Hurricanes and had yet to record a point.
That all changed in 2000-01.
“In training camp, coming in, everyone had the aspiration of me staying and playing, but we didn’t know in what role,” said Willis, who had signed a new contract with the Canes in August 2000. “I got off to a little bit of slow start in training camp. It wasn’t until the very last exhibition game that I scored, and then everything kind of broke open.”
It broke open in a big way as Willis, who had just one shot in his previous three exhibition games, scored a hat-trick in the first period alone. He tacked on two assists in the second period for a five-point night as the Canes topped Washington 6-3.
“As soon as I scored that first goal, the weight was lifted off, and I felt like I could just go,” he said.
And go he did.
Willis notched career highs in his rookie season, scoring 20 goals and assisting on 24 others (44 points). The then-23-year-old was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in February 2001, as he led all rookies in scoring with 10 points (7g, 3a) in 12 games. On Feb. 21 against Atlanta, Willis became the fifth player in franchise history to record a hat-trick in his rookie campaign.
“Playing on right wing with Rod Brind’Amour and Martin Gelinas for pretty much three-quarters of the season is a huge benefit to any young guy,” Willis said. “The coaching staff was great. Kevin McCarthy (assistant coach) was my original coach my first year pro in the minors in New Haven. He really pushed me and continued to reinforce what he saw from me in the minors to keep me here.
“Mo (Paul Maurice) was great, as well. He pushed me a little bit but also knew to let the older guys lead me. He put me in situations to achieve, and I’m thankful for that.”
After the Hit
After being named to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team, Willis signed a one-year contract with the Hurricanes in July 2001.
The pressure to perform weighed heavily on him. Would he have the sophomore jinx? How did he feel coming off the concussion?
“That gets in your head,” he said.
Willis emerged from training camp plagued with back issues, as he missed the team’s first three games of the season. In the next 15 games, Willis recorded just one goal and three assists (4 points).
Then, another hit and another concussion.
San Jose Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment caught Willis in the head with an elbow. That, Willis said, was a dirty hit. Marchment was suspended for six games, and Willis missed the team’s next two games.
“That was an immediate setback that you don’t want to see,” he said. “From there, it was just kind of a struggle. Missing those games, you get out of the groove. Other guys were playing great, so obviously it’s a competition. I just wasn’t getting there.”
The Hurricanes traded Willis and enforcer Chris Dingman to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 5, 2002, in exchange for goaltender Kevin Weekes.
“That was the first time I’d been traded,” Willis said. “You fall in love with the place, you want to stay there, and then you get traded and you don’t know how to deal with that.
“I was one of the pieces that Tampa thought, when my game got back, I could help the young team down there. Chris was bringing toughness to the team, and Carolina needed a goalie. The trade, when you look back on it, was a fit for both teams at the time.”
Across the Sea
After bouncing around in the AHL for a few years, Willis jaunted to Europe to play for HC Davos of the Swiss National League A in the 2005-06 season.
“It was difficult in the sense of going over there, you don’t know what to expect. We were in a very small town, and there were only a couple of guys from the U.S. on the team,” Willis recalled. “My daughter had just turned one, so going over there with a young child was also a challenge with different baby food. So, that side of it was a little more stressful. The hockey was great. The living experience was wonderful. I always tell people if I had the chance to go back, I’d love to. It was just a beautiful place.”
Willis scored 20 points (5g, 15a) in 32 games before heading over to Sweden to finish the season with Linkoping of the Elitserien. In 13 playoff games, Willis seemed to return to his prolific form with six goals and five assists (11 points).
Carolina was paying attention, and they signed Willis to a one-year deal in July 2006.
“I knew it’d be difficult (to make the team) because they just won a Stanley Cup,” Willis said. “Who’s going to change a lot of things after you win the Cup? But I had a lot of confidence coming in. Management knew me, I knew them.”
Willis was unable to crack the lineup and was assigned to Albany of the AHL, where he was a point-per-game producer with 43 points (20g, 23a) in as many games. But with a crowded veteran lineup, restrictive AHL rules and a hernia injury, Willis never got the call-up he was looking for.
“We were splitting the roster with Colorado at the time, and I think we had a total of nine or 10 veterans, and you were only allowed to dress five. And so, Tom [Rowe] had to come in every day and say, ‘I’ve got to sit you guys out,’” Willis said. “And all of us are sitting there pulling our hair out in a sense because we all knew we could play at the American League level. That was difficult, and it couldn’t get resolved.”
The Last Injury
Willis began the 2007-08 campaign in Nashville’s organization with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. Just a game into the season, he suffered a neck injury, requiring neck fusion surgery.
“I came back home here and did my rehab with Jaime (Holt) up at APC (Athletic Performance Center). After surgery, I was confident I would be able to play again,” he said. “I focused in on that, and I trained.”
He didn’t get another shot at the AHL level until January 2009 when he signed with the Springfield Falcons.
Thirty two AHL games later and at age 32, Willis retired.
“My daughter was getting ready to start school, and I had a young boy at home,” he said. “It was definitely a tough decision (to retire), but I put my family first.”
Back to Carolina, Again
Willis rejoined the Hurricanes organization in September 2011 as the youth and amateur hockey coordinator. His family was already settled in Raleigh, a place he said he and his wife knew they’d call “home base.”
“I knew I loved working with youth programs. That’s what I did growing up – working hockey schools back home,” he said. “It helps really deal with the part that I miss – going to the rink. I get to go to the rink two, maybe three times a week, skate with these kids, get out there and teach them.”
Willis said he is simply doing what he had others do for him as a young player.
“I know the impact they had on me and my career, so if I can go and reach some of the kids here in Raleigh and continue to grow the game, not only is it beneficial for the Hurricanes because that’s creating fans and putting people in this building, which our players love, but it’s also giving these kids the inspiration to chase their dreams,” he said.
Chasing his dream is what Willis did and accomplished, despite the injuries and setbacks. When asked what he was most proud of in his 174-game NHL career, Willis said, “just playing.”
“A lot of guys, their whole dream is to play in the NHL. For me to say I’ve played 174 games, I’m very proud of that,” he said. “I’m proud of the way I played. I’m proud I got the opportunity to put on a Hurricanes jersey and play in this league. Again, I don’t live in the past. I use that to try and help a young kid in Raleigh achieve his dream of getting there someday.”