That’s Oklahoma City Barons veteran Jason Williams’ approach to hockey, 14 years after beginning his professional career in the Detroit Red Wings system. It’s a mentality that drives Williams to get up each morning and be the first player in the gym, every day.
He learned the work ethic from watching long-time Red Wings forward Kris Draper. A veteran of over 1,150 NHL games, Draper was the first to the rink in the morning and Williams followed his lead.
|Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons |
“Draper was one of the guys I looked up to a lot,” Williams said. “He had a tremendous work ethic, he worked out hard in the gym and I tried to follow him and go underneath his wing a little bit. I would do the workouts he would do.”
Years later, Williams is now the leader. Signed to an American Hockey League contract this past July, Williams is now passing on his experience and knowledge to the Oilers young prospects down on the farm.
“You walk into the rink and he’s the first guy in the gym,” Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson said. “He’s trying to maintain his body. The young guys see that. They see how hard he works off the ice, as well as on the ice in practice. He brings that work ethic day-in and day-out. It’s important having guys like that in your locker room so the younger guys can see what these guys go through to play as long as they have.”
One player in particular that has shadowed Williams this season is Mitch Moroz. The Oilers selected Moroz in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft. This is the 20-year-old winger’s first professional season and he’s been a sponge, soaking in what he can from Williams.
“I’ve kind of brought Mitch Moroz along the way as well, under my wing,” Williams said. “He’s joined me in doing the workouts and stuff like that. For anybody else who wants to join me, they’re more than welcome. Mitch has took it upon himself to come and join me in the workouts and stuff like that. It’s good to see some of the young guys start to recognize that this guy is maybe 10 or eight years older than me and being in the gym, working out and doing the things that he does every single day, maybe I should do it too.”
Don’t waste a day — the lesson that Williams has decided to pass on to Moroz and the rest of the Barons youth.
“It’s good for some of the younger guys and hopefully they realize that with pro hockey, you don’t get to play it your whole life,” Williams said. “It comes and goes pretty quickly, so I think my mentality is don’t waste a day. Every day is a chance to get better. There is something you can do improve your game each and every day, whether it’s in the gym or on the ice. Just coming in, working out and doing the little things that help you become a better player, those are just the things you have to do to become a better professional hockey player. It’s good for the young guys to see that and hopefully they catch on and want to do the same thing.”
It could be seeing a 34-year-old sweating it out in the gym or giving that extra effort at practice that inspires the young Barons, or it could be the fact that Williams is a Stanley Cup champion. That kind of achievement resonates with people.
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A HERO’S WELCOME
After winning the 2002 Stanley Cup with the Red Wings, a young Williams was patiently waiting his turn with the trophy. As a younger player with a limited role, Williams was further down on the list. But his time with the Cup came at the end of the summer, before training camp.
What would you do if you had two days with the Cup? Williams decided to share it with the town he grew up in.
Williams’ father, Norman, worked at a Ford automotive plant just outside his hometown of London, Ontario. For 35 years, Norman worked at that plant, putting food on the table and helping support Jason’s hockey dreams.
“Obviously, if it wasn’t for him being able to work there and them providing him with a cheque every couple of weeks, I wouldn’t have been able to play the game that I love,” Jason said.
Williams brought the trophy to the plant, which was on shutdown, for a few hours.
“My dad had promised all his friends and the company that I would bring it out there,” Williams said. “I went out there a few hours and took pictures and signed autographs with a lot of my dad’s coworkers and friends.”
Williams continued to share his championship experience with friends and family in his London home. Then he went downtown with the hardware to share with the city. Minor hockey league teams, Jason’s old high school and a children’s hospital were among the stops.
“It was obviously two days that I’ll never forget. It’s really cool to have a trophy bring so much attention and people just wanting their pictures with it,” Williams said. “A lot of people have that dream of winning a Stanley Cup and they may have never made it. To share that with some friends and family members was something that you’ll never forget.”
His family and the town supported his hopes and dreams as a kid. This trip was his way to pay it back. For Williams, it’s also as much about the journey as it is where he started.
|Center Jason Williams #29 of the Detroit Red Wings skates on the ice during the NHL game against the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. The Sabres won, 5-1. \ Mandatory Copyright Notice: 2002 NHLI \ Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images/NHLI |
LOVE OF THE GAME
When he was four or five years old, Santa brought Williams a hockey stick for Christmas. He never put it down.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had passion for hockey,” Williams said. “I’ve always enjoyed it and as a young kid growing up in London, Ontario, there were lots of places and lots of rinks I could go to. My parents put me into hockey at a very young age and it was something I grew to like. I just really enjoyed being there on the ice and playing and having fun with friends.”
Williams had such a fiery passion for the game that he never let his size hold him back. A smaller forward, Williams was overlooked by pro scouts throughout his OHL career in Peterborough.
Williams played four seasons for the Petes. His best years were his last two, where he compiled 147 points in 134 games. Even with decent numbers, Williams didn’t get a sniff of interest from the pro scouts.
“It was a time when the NHL was looking for bigger players,” Williams said. “I remember that there was a scout in the Buffalo area that couldn’t even give a scouting report about me because I was 5-11, I wasn’t 6-foot.”
Williams went undrafted. But that didn’t hold him back, and he used it as motivation.
“It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a little disappointing at the time when you see a other guys throughout the league that didn’t have the numbers you did throughout the regular season that got a chance and got drafted,” he said. “It was frustrating at times but I didn’t let it bother me that much. It’s something I put to the back of my head and the next season or next time I was playing against a certain player, I would try to play hard and show I was a better player or just as good.”
Following his final season in Peterborough, Williams got an unexpected offer from a high-profile organization. Detroit was interested.
The Red Wings offered Williams a chance to come to camp and try out. People told him he was crazy to go and that he would never make the team. But where others saw an opportunity for failure, Williams only saw opportunity.
“For me, it wasn’t about making that hockey team,” Williams said. “I knew in their minor league system, that they weren’t very strong at centre and at right wing. Being a centreman and being able to play the wing as well, I thought that it was two positions that I could potentially fill. I thought that if I went there it would give me a chance to maybe get my foot in the door.”
Earlier that summer, Williams and his father were going over the options. Norman wanted his son to consider going to school, but Jason wasn’t having any of it.
“I remember talking to my dad and telling him school can wait. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t look back at this decision and any decision I make in the next five years and wish I would have done this or I wish I would have done that,” Williams said.
Luckily for Williams, everything worked out. He accepted the offer, attended camp and made an impression. Detroit signed Williams before his first exhibition game. Not only that, but he provided some depth and pushed the NHL players from below.
“I ended up being the last cut that year,” Williams said. “I went from being someone who was completely off the radar to almost making the team, being in the lineup and being the last cut. I got sent down to the minors with Todd Gill, someone I watched when he played for the Leafs. Going down to the minors with him was real weird. I didn’t think he’d play in the minors. It was something that showed I played well and that going down to the minors wasn’t a bad thing. I had to go down there and develop my game and that’s what they told me. I went from there.”
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Williams played 76 games in the American Hockey League that season with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. He scored 69 points (24-45-69). However, it was the three points he scored in five NHL games that season that he’ll probably remember most.
“It gave me a ton of confidence,” Williams said. “I thought that if I could do that at the NHL level and produce and play well then there was no reason I couldn’t do it at the American Hockey League level. I went down and remember having a lot more confidence.”
Williams played his first NHL game on November 20, 2000 against Nashville.
“I came really close to scoring within 20 seconds of my first shift,” he said. “I thought that was pretty cool that I could have scored my first shift.”
That next season, Williams got even more of a taste of what the NHL had to offer. He played 25 games, scoring eight goals and adding two assists. He also played in nine games during Detroit’s Cup run. It was a season and an achievement he’ll never forget and one he’s still trying to match.
“Being on a championship team, it’s something that’s followed me throughout my career,” Williams said. “I find that teams are always looking for winners. That’s something that happened very early in my career and I haven’t ever come close to getting to it again. It just goes to show how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup or to win a championship. That’s something I would like to do before I retire, win a championship, whether it’s here in the American Hockey League or the NHL. I definitely want another championship before I retire.”
After claiming the Stanley Cup Championship in 2002, Williams went right back to his winning ways the following year. This time however, it was in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
He spent only 16 games in the NHL during the 2002-03, but played 45 with Grand Rapids. He finished, once again, at a point-per-game pace with 45 (23-22-45).
Williams played 15 playoff games that season, helping the Griffins reach the Western Conference Final. Despite having Williams’ veteran leadership, the Griffins fell to Houston in seven games.
“I think at any level, you win a championship and those are the years you remember,” Williams said. “Or you have a long playoff run and you come up a little short, those are the things you really remember. You remember the good and the bad of how you felt throughout that run. Just that experience of being there gives you that experience of, when it comes around, how to prepare yourself and what you need to do mentally and physically. It’s a long season, it’s a long playoff run and if you want to win it then it’s something you’ve got to prepare for mentally.”
|Jason Williams #29 of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in game five of the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals on June 13, 2002 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings defeated the Hurricanes 3-1, making them winners of the Stanley Cup Championship. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI) |
That year has been the closest that Williams has come to replicating the 2001-02 season. He’s bounced around from team to team and league to league, but his pursuit of a championship continues today.
“Being on a championship team in 2002 and then getting beat out in the Western Conference Final against Houston, was beneficial for me going further in my career,” Williams said. “Teams want to surround themselves with winners and things like that always follow you. Anytime someone brings up a name it’s that I’ve one a Stanley Cup championship. I like that. It’s a good feeling obviously, and it’s always nice to be wanted because you were a champion.”
Being a champion is part of what has helped Williams continue to play, years after signing that initial contract with Detroit.
After two years in Detroit, a lockout year in Pori, Finland and one and a half more years in Detroit, Williams was traded to Chicago. He played 63 games for the Blackhawks before moving on to Atlanta, where he was traded after 41 games in the 2008-09 season. He finished out the year in Columbus, playing 39 games for the Blue Jackets and scoring 29 points (12-17-29).
The NHL tour came full circle as he played 44 games for Detroit in 2009-10. He then made stops in both the AHL and NHL in the following years, spending time with the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins organization. No matter which team he left, Williams could always find work.
From 2012 to 2014, Williams had been playing in the Swiss National League with Ambri-Piotta. He was enjoying his time overseas, but the well-traveled veteran was looking to come back to North America this summer. That would eventually lead him to Oklahoma City.
BECOMING A BARON
Williams was golfing in his hometown when he ran into two Oilers executives, Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson. The pair was in London for the Memorial Cup. Williams struck up a conversation, not knowing that this could be the opportunity he had been hoping for.
|Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons |
“I was out there with a friend of mine and I just kind of talked to them for a little bit,” Williams said. “I still didn’t think about that being a potential team I could go to and things like that.”
Weeks went by and then Williams decided to give MacTavish a call. He told the Oilers general manager that he wanted to stay in North America and that he was curious as to what kind of veteran situation their farm team had.
“If they had room for me I would be willing to go there and try to be a good veteran leader,” Williams said. “I got a phone call shortly after that and they said that they were interested. Craig and I just hammered out a deal real quick. Within a couple of days, I knew I was coming to Oklahoma for this season.”
Williams has enjoyed his time in the organization. It seems to be the perfect fit for the one-time Stanley Cup champion.
“Everything has been really great so far. My family loves the city here in Oklahoma, we’re having a lot of fun and the organization has been great for giving me a chance,” Williams said. “Coming back can sometimes be difficult for a guy that’s been over in Europe but they’ve given me a chance and I just wanted to make sure I was prepared and ready come to this summer when training camp started and show that I can still play and still have some years left in me.”
STILL GOT IT
The Barons knew they’d be getting some veteran leadership with Williams. What they may not have known is the extent of the impact that Williams would have on the scoresheet.
Williams has played 23 games for the Barons this season, registering 26 points (9-17-26). He’s been at, or near, the top of Barons scoring all season. And OKC’s 10-game unbeaten streak (eight-straight wins) directly coincided with a 10-game point streak for Williams.
Always putting the team first, Williams says his success has been due to the team and not him personally.
“I didn’t think coming into this year that I would be where I am on the sheet right now,” he said. “I think it is expected, being where I’ve been and the points I’ve put up in my career. We have a good team here. I think we’re one of the better teams in the league. I’ve been playing with some very good linemates and I think the strength of our team is in our forwards. Our power play started off very well and kind of clicked right away. I’ve been very fortunate to play with some good players. We are a little bit young on D, but I think our defensive core has really simplified things and made it easy for us forwards to get the puck and create some offence. We went on that streak where we were unbeaten in 11 games. You have to be a pretty good team for things like that to happen.”
Still, Williams would trade all the goals and points for another championship.
“My success so far has been great, but I’ve said this from day one that I’m not looking for my personal success, it’s more about what the team does,” Williams said. “If we can win a championship down here that could get me a job for another year or two years or whatever it is. That’s what my main focus is on, continue to win and continue the success with the team. If the personal success comes along with it then great, but I’ve been in the game for a while and I know that teams always look for winners.”
Williams continued, “You can lead the league in points or have the most goals and that’s all fine and dandy, but they want winners. That’s what my main focus is, winning another championship, whether it’s here or if I did get that opportunity to go up to Edmonton and help out the team there, that would be something I would love to do. If that isn’t in my cards, what I’m doing down here and helping the young guys and I’m really enjoying my role. I think whatever I can do here to help them in their future and help them become an NHL player, I think that would be good.”
At 34-years-old, Williams knows that the bulk of his playing time is behind him. But don’t think that means retirement is closing in fast. Williams does the little things right that have prepared him for a long career and as long as he continues to put up numbers and teams continue to want his championship presence, Williams will continue to tie up the skates.
“If I can continue to play at a high level and be successful and produce, that’s what I want to do,” Williams said. “If I could do that for another three, four, five years or whatever it is then I’m going to do it. I know that you can’t be a hockey player for a long, long time but if I can continue playing and I can stay healthy then I’m going to play as long as I can.”
Don’t waste a day.
That mantra rings even more true today as Williams looks back on his career and knows where it stands now.
“I’ve talked to a lot of former teammates that are not in the game right now and they’ve all said the same thing,” Williams said. “They say to play as long as you can and enjoy it because it doesn’t last forever. That’s something I’ve put in the back of my head and every day that goes by now I’ve take very seriously. I try to go out there each and every day and become a better player. I also try to help out as much as I can and use the knowledge that I do have and pass that on to some of these young guys. Hopefully they can have a long career like myself.”
The Oilers prospects in Oklahoma City could do well by listening to Williams, and they do. He has a presence that every locker room needs.
“He is bringing that winning attitude,” Coach Nelson said. “He’s been there before and that’s always helpful because when you face adversity over the course of the season, guys like him have been through it, they know how to deal with it and they really help out the young guys.”
Whether it’s helping a young prospect like Moroz find his way around a weight room in the early morning hours, or if it’s helping the team battle through adversity on the ice, Williams is there for his teammates in Oklahoma City.
And despite a lot of wear on those tires, he’s still not ready to put down that stick.