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Central: Too small? Hogwash! says Chicago's Williams

by Larry Wigge

Jason Williams vividly recalls that late-February night after he learned that he had gone from first to last in the Central Division, when he was obtained by the Blackhawks in a three-team trade.

Underestimated. Under the radar. Undrafted. Unappreciated.

Finding it hard to prove himself after a pretty good junior career with the Peterborough Petes, Jason Williams signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings shortly after an impressive training camp in September, 2000. But the too-small-to-make-it winger still needed five seasons in the minors to finally earn a legitimate shot at playing regularly in the NHL.


There always has been something about this kid from London, Ontario, one who swiped the hockey stick his older brother Darren got as a gift on Christmas when he was four and refused to give it back. And he showed all of those scouts who wouldn’t believe in him that he could do some amazing things with a hockey stick in his hands.

Williams was part of the Stanley Cup roster in Detroit in 2002, scoring eight goals in 25 games in the regular season. But it wasn’t until he lit the red light 26 times in just 43 games for Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League during the lockout in 2004-05 that Red Wings officials really began to make plans that included him.

Twenty-one goals and 37 assists followed in 2005-06 -- many of those points coming when new coach Mike Babcock moved him back on the right point on the power play. Still under intense scrutiny while playing through various injuries last season, suddenly Williams found himself a former Red Wing ... just when he thought he might get another chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Williams vividly recalls that late-February night in a Chicago hotel room after he learned that he had gone from first to last in the Central Division, when he was obtained by the Blackhawks in a three-team trade that sent winger Eric Calder from Philadelphia to Chicago and on to Detroit and defenseman Lasse Kukkonen from Chicago to Philadelphia. It was an evening Jason would just as soon forget.

"I had just been traded from a team that I helped win a Stanley Cup, a team that might have been headed to another one," Williams recalled. "I was living in a hotel room. Strange new city. Trying to figure out where my life was headed next.

"I was trying to tell myself it was OK. But there sure were a lot of things going through my head. Worst of all, I couldn’t believe that I had to play my first game with my new team ... against my old team."

The 27-year-old Williams got the cursory platitudes from Chicago officials that he would be part of the veteran leadership on a roster that would be spiced with lots of young talent. But that didn’t help. At least not until Jason ran into former teammate Kris Draper, a guy who lived the same unfulfilled winding road in the minors that Williams did before the Winnipeg Jets traded him to Detroit for one dollar. Draper, who was always a voice of reason to this late-blooming winger, told Williams to look at this as an exciting new start.

"Drapes came up to me and said; ‘Oh, man. I’m sorry. You were a great teammate. But things like this happen,’ " Williams recalled. "He said; ‘Have fun with it. Chicago is a young team. Lots of talent on the way. Use some of the experience you learned here to help this team grow.’ "

Reality check? Sort of.

When the season ended, Williams had a long time to think about his plight. He then remembered Draper’s advice and worked hard to get in the best shape of his life this summer. And his versatility, especially an ability to quarterback the power play, has been a big part of the Blackhawks’ success in trying to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

"Life has been filled with little stepping stones for me," he admitted. "When I got over the initial shock, I began to look at Chicago like a fresh start. And I truly wanted to be a big part of this young team.

"There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t remember something smart that Steve Yzerman or Brendan Shanahan said to me. That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to bring to these talented, young kids we have here."

"The way the new rules have opened up the ice, a guy 5-11, 185 pounds like Jason can use his skating ability and skill as a weapon." -- Chicago head coach Denis Savard

The leadership skills share the hockey skills Williams brings to the Blackhawks. Going into a weekend contest at Detroit, Jason had seven goals and 11 assists in in his last 15 games. And, lo and behold, the Blackhawks, the new kids on the block, won the first three games against the powerful Red Wings this season.

Proving he’s still got the hunger to compete at a high level, plus show youngsters like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane a tip or two that he might have learned in his Detroit days.

"Things don't always come easy. You need to pay your dues,” Williams said. “For me, it helped to play and learn at the minor-league level so that I was really ready for the NHL. When I got to the NHL, I tried to be like a sponge and take in all of the advice I could from guys like Steve Yzerman, Shanny, Nik Lidstrom, Drapes."

It was like a post-graduate course in Leadership 101.

"The way the new rules have opened up the ice, a guy 5-11, 185 pounds like Jason can use his skating ability and skill as a weapon," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said. "More important, he knows what it takes in those little battles on the ice to win and he’s not afraid to take one of the youngsters aside and show them a trick he learned in Detroit.

"You can never underestimate how much that helps."

Williams’ versatility and his ability to quarterback the power play from the point has made him invaluable to the Blackhawks.

"He's got great poise back there," said Shanahan. "He's responsible defensively and he's got confidence in his hands. Jason has a dangerous shot. And he never, ever panics."

The too-small-to-play scouting reports are long gone.

"All my life I’ve heard them say; “He’s too small to make it,’" Williams laughed. "When I played on the international level against NHL players, I always wondered; ‘Why can’t I play in the NHL?’

"Knowing the complaints, I’ve always tried to just battle and play like I’m really, really big with the skills I have."

The skills that started to show themselves when Norman Williams, when he was working on the line at Ford Motor Company in London, Ontario, and Debbie, Jason’s mom, made sure that Jason always had a hockey stick to play with.

That night in Chicago last February? Just another of those stepping stone’s that Jason Williams likes to leap over.


Around the Central Division -- Here’s a piece of trivia for you. In the 24-game point streak that Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg had dating back to last season, take a guess at what was ironic about the start and end of the streak. Give? It involves former Red Wings teammate Manny Legace. He combined with Curtis Sanford to blank Detroit, 1-0, last February in the last game that Zetterberg failed to score in last season, plus he was the netminder who held Henrik scoreless for the first time this season in a 4-3 loss at St. Louis Nov. 13. ... After winning nine consecutive games, you couldn’t really say the Red Wings were stuck in the mud after losing 3-2 in Chicago Nov. 10 and then 4-3 in St. Louis two nights later. In reality, they were stuck in the mud when their plane was unable to negotiate a turn at the Chesterfield, Mo., airport. The only real setback this season for the Wings is their record of 2-3-1 in the Central Division, including three-straight losses to Chicago. ... Dan Cleary is flexing his muscles around the net of late, scoring five goals in five games. ... And, after being demoted to the fourth line, Jiri Hudler has four goals in five games. ... When you are coming off an 0-3-1 stretch, what does Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock do? He puts his top line of Rick Nash, Sergei Fedorov and David Vyborny head up against Chicago’s young guns Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Tuomo Ruutu as a challenge to his best unit. Result: Nash and Fedorov each had a goal and an assist in the 4-2 win Nov. 14. ... Fedorov, on the last year of his huge multiyear contract, has awakened of late since replacing Michael Peca on the line with Nash. He has points in eight of his last nine games. ... Thirteen times in the first 18 games, Columbus’ No. 1 penalty-killing unit has shut out opposing power plays. ... The Jackets used to be among the best teams in the NHL in the shootout. This season? They fell to 0-3 and are 0-for-9 in shootouts following a 4-3 loss to Nashville Nov. 10. Who took the shots against Predators goalie Chris Mason? Jiri Novotny, Gilbert Brule and Adam Foote. Where was Nash, Fedorov or Nikolai Zherdev? ... The Chicago Blackhawks take an extended trip every November while the circus comes to United Center. They haven’t had a winning record on this trip since 1997 -- and the Hawks started this year’s excursion with a 4-2 setback in Columbus Nov. 14 and a 5-4 overtime loss at Nashville one night later. ... Rookie pressure? Not with Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. Toews had failed to get a point in just three of his first 17 NHL games, while Kane was held scoreless just five times in his first 19 contests. ... More offense from defense. In the loss to Columbus, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien scored both of the Chicago goals and in the loss at Nashville James Wisniewski had another tally from the blue line -- giving Hawks’ defensemen 14 goals this season. They had just 21 all of last season. ... David Legwand's two assists Nov. 15 in a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime victory over Chicago gave the Nashville Predators center 300 points in his NHL career. It also moved him within one point of defenseman Kimmo Timonen for the franchise lead in points. ... In recent weeks, the team’s top two lines of Legwand, Vern Fiddler and Alexander Radulov and Jason Arnott, Martin Erat and J.P. Dumont have really taken on a productive identity. In fact, since the team’s frustrating six-game losing streak, the Preds have now won eight of their last 10 games -- primarily on the scoring of those two lines. ... Erat’s goal 19 seconds into overtime in the victory over Chicago came on the heels of his career-high two-goal, two-assist performance in a 4-1 win at Columbus three days earlier. ...


While the Blackhawks’ defense is active, the Nashville Predators D-men have taken a U-turn since last season when they always seemed to be involved in the play. But with Timonen taking his 13 goals to Philadelphia and Shea Weber’s 17 goals just returning to practice after a lengthy stint on the injured reserve list with a dislocated kneecap, Predators’ defensemen had just four goals in the team’s first 18 games. ... The brightest sign the St. Louis Blues took out of their four-goal second-period uprising and 4-3 triumph over Detroit Nov. 13 was the way the team’s rookies -- right winger David Perron and defensemen Steve Wagner and Erik Johnson took charge. Perron scored twice in 93 seconds against Dominik Hasek of all people, while Wagner and Johnson each chipped in with two assists. ... Perron came to St. Louis wearing white skates, a big smile and boasting a ton of confidence in his offensive ability. Now, closing in on the 20-game mark, Perron, the 26th pick in the first round of last June’s NHL Entry Draft, is finally getting ice time -- and his two goals against the Red Wings gave him four goals and two assists in his last five games. The white skates disappeared before training camp, but there is no longer any doubt that Perron, who added plenty of strength and more confidence in his play-one-game-a-month routine for the first six weeks of the season, will stay with the Blues and not be returned to his junior team in Lewiston of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. ... The Blues’ power play has been less than inconsistent so far this season. Surprising when you consider the names of Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Brad Boyes, Doug Weight, Lee Stempniak and Martin Rucinsky that are normally in the man-advantage situations. One of Perron’s two goals against Detroit was on a power play that was 2-for-5 against the Wings. Bet you didn’t know that St. Louis’ feeble power play was 0-for-39 in the eight meetings against Detroit last season?

The week ahead -- Is the trend in the future St. Louis-Nashville games going to continue to go in the direction of the team Paul Kariya plays for? The Predators won 7-of-8 games last season and 15-of-16 over the last two seasons, before Kariya signed as a free agent with the Blues in the offseason -- and Paul set up a pair of goals by Brad Boyes in a 4-1 St. Louis win Oct. 10. The two teams meet at Nashville Nov. 17 and back in St. Louis two nights later. ... Detroit continues its tour of the division, hosting Chicago Nov. 17, playing at Columbus one night later, hosting St. Louis on Nov. 21 and then playing at Nashville on Thanksgiving night. The Red Wings obviously will be out for revenge against the Blackhawks after dropping the first three meetings with former Wing Robert Lang orchestrating the offense against his old team in the process sending the game into sudden death with a goal in Chicago’s 4-3 win Oct. 6, getting the winning goal in a 3-2 victory Oct. 12 and assisting on a pair of goals in another 3-2 win November 11. Daniel Cleary had two goals in a 4-1 victory over Columbus November 9, giving him nine goals in nine games against the Blue Jackets over the last two seasons. For St. Louis, Manny Legace has four wins in eight decisions over his former Detroit teammates following a 4-3 triumph Nov. 13. Finally, Round 2 in the Nashville-Detroit series after the Red Wings won 3-2 in a shootout on a Pavel Datsyuk goal Nov. 7.


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