by George Darkow || AHL On The Beat Archive
"Don’t take anything for granted."
That’s the mantra of Oklahoma City Barons forward and former Stanley Cup champion Jason Williams. A 15th-year pro and veteran of 455 games in the NHL, Williams finds himself in what he considers a different stretch of his career.
Williams has played with some of the all-time greats of the game. Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brett Hull — Williams has shared most every career highlight with those and many other stars. He’s set up goals for legends like Luc Robitaille and been assisted in his own scoring by likes of Chris Chelios.
But today Williams finds himself in a situation not uncommon among many veterans in the AHL, one that requires more than just finding open skaters and taking well-timed shots. At this stage in his career, Williams understands that the value of his experience and the impact it can make on a young and up-coming organization outweighs his ability to put pucks into the back of opponents’ nets.
"My job is to kind of show them the ropes a little bit and teach them what it takes to be a pro every single day, and I’m going to try to do that with my work ethic," Williams said. "I want all my teammates to remember me for how hard I worked, and if I can help these guys become better pros on and off the ice, that’s great for me."
Among the things Williams emphasizes is the importance of winning championships. He believes the value in accomplishing such feats pales in comparison to personal achievements. If anyone questions that mentality, they need look no further than to Williams — whose name is etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings — and the decade and a half of employment he’s enjoyed in professional hockey.
"To go through that run with [Detroit], I learned a lot," Williams said. "Looking back, it’s been a little bit of an eye-opener. I was real young and winning a Stanley Cup in my first year, I thought it was easy. And I find myself today and I haven’t been close ever again. So it just goes to show how hard it is to win.
"To get some of these guys to understand that in winning a championship, teams are always going to want you. It’s not just how many points or how many goals you have, they want champions, they want winners. And if we can develop a winning habit [in Oklahoma City], I think that will help a lot of these young guys out."
The role Williams assumes as the Barons’ veteran mentor is clear to him. It is not solely based on organizational expectations, but also because he was once a young up-and-comer who had veterans show him the ropes.
"I’ve learned from a lot of great players," Williams said. "Nick Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, (Igor) Larionov, the list goes on and on. I learned a lot of things from those guys just from watching, and they would pull me aside and teach me little things here and there. If I can do that with some of these young guys, and help them prolong their careers, I’ll take some credit, but it mainly feels good to help other people out."
Though Williams’ most celebrated moments came in his early years with Detroit, another interesting bit of experience the journeyman brings to the table is his experience with a young Chicago Blackhawks team that was in the midst of an organizational transformation. In 2007-08, Williams had the benefit of being in the middle of a team on the cusp of something special, playing with Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and 19-year-old rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the core of a lineup that would go on to win Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013.
"In Chicago, it was tough," Williams said. "They had a very young team and they were going through a process kind of like what Edmonton is going through now. It’s all about finding those right pieces to put together to develop a winning chemistry. It’s nothing you’re going to build overnight, but we’ve got a lot of great prospects here."
Williams’ worth to a young organization doesn’t go unnoticed in the Oilers organization either. Barons head coach Todd Nelson understands the value of veteran experience and relies on it to convey aspects of the game that extend beyond X’s and O’s.
"[Veterans like Williams] see how teams react to adversity, how they come together, and they’ve been through the process," Nelson said. "Those veteran guys are an extension of the coaching staff, where you can hear them echo your comments to the players. And a lot of times when a young guy gets advice from a veteran it has a lot of teeth to it and it’s not just the same voice of the coach talking to them."
After playing 11 seasons in the NHL and two more in Europe, Williams has experienced most every aspect of the game. Still, though, one particular goal remains: going out a winner.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve won and before I retire, before I hang ’em up, I want to win another championship," Williams said. "And if that’s in the NHL or it’s in the American Hockey League, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to win."
Whether he hoists postseason hardware again before he retires remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, Williams has plenty of knowledge and advice to share with the young Edmonton hopefuls in Oklahoma City.
"The biggest takeaways from my career are just not taking anything for granted and cherishing the special moments."