That’s why Washington’s younger players were expecting a grizzled hockey icon preaching solemn lessons in How to Win, some sort of bearded Belichick in skates.
“Honest to God, I just had this picture in my head of Willy being this really old, serious vet,” Michael Latta said.
“Kind of always took him as Mr. Serious before he got here,” Tom Wilson agreed.
Then they met Williams. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Serious. “The opposite, I’d say,” as Latta put it.
Turns out Williams was the guy who would needle the TV cameramen in the dressing room moments before a game. The class clown who showed up at picture day with his hair resembling an electrocuted wombat, “kind of blown up into a huge mess,” as Wilson put it. The jokester relaxed enough that cameras caught him joyfully shimmying along to “Cotton Eye Joe” smack in the middle of a late-season game. The 34-year-old who recently responded to a teammate’s chirp about not wearing a tie to a team function by texting a photo of himself with his tie wrapped around his forehead; “does this classify as wearing my tie?” he asked. The player teammates describe both as happy-go-lucky and hilarious, deploying what Latta called “the funniest laugh you could ever hear.”
He was a leader, sure. But he wasn’t the leader they had imagined.
“He’s just, like, the coolest guy we know,” Latta said.
“I don’t think we saw him as kind of the quirky guy he is,” Wilson said.
“Quirky’s a great word to use for him,” Nate Schmidt said. “He kind of just does his own thing, and it’s awesome. It’s so awesome.”
This is a franchise with a deserved reputation for turning rigid at the biggest moments, when scoring a Game 7 goal sometimes feels about as easy as skating across the Anacostia in July. The team’s 4-10 record in Game 7s might as well be printed on the cover of its media guide. The playoffs have meant paralysis: lots of seriousness, and a bit less fun. Enter Williams, the guy who personally has been a part of seven Game 7 wins, whose seven Game 7 goals are tied for the most in NHL history. Sure, he insists that he gets nervous before every game he plays, even during these past few meaningless weeks. He looks about as nervous as napping toddler.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s been so good in the Game 7s and throughout the whole playoffs,” said Karl Alzner, who sits next to Williams at the team’s practice facility. “The majority of guys in the league squeeze it in the playoffs, you know? They get a little bit too tense. They still play good, but they don’t make those really nice plays, plays that are maybe unexpected. And I think because he’s so kind of light and just happy to be out there; I think that’s what helps him make those plays and be able to be successful. But also what’s really cool is at times you really see that killer instinct. To be able to balance it the way he does, not a lot of guys can do that.”
Ask him about these balances — nerves and relaxation, serious and fun — and Williams shrugs his shoulders. He said he’s patterned himself after veterans from his past, but he isn’t trying to be Justin Williams, leader. That would defeat the point.
“Listen, you just try to be yourself, and if it works out, great,” Williams said.
Still, his words carry weight, because of what he’s done and how he’s seen. Williams said he tried to endear himself to his new Washington teammates slowly before offering his opinions, that he didn’t want to assume any leadership role, that he was nervous just about being accepted. “Imagine a kid going to a new school, a new job,” Williams said.
But the popular kids don’t have to wait, which is why teammates remember this feeling-out period a bit differently. “It took about a day, maybe,” goalie Braden Holtby said.
And so on the bench, Williams will tell teammates when they need to lay off the officials, when they’re playing too sloppily, when they need to just tip their caps to a strong opponent, when they need more intensity. He’ll tell young players they need to shoot more, that they need to demand the puck. He’ll reassure teammates in the tunnel that a goal is coming. He is an unquestioned leader, but he’s also the poofy hair in a row of buzzcuts, a deep exhale dropped into a room of quick breaths.
“He’s been the reason we’ve been able to stay calm in a lot of these games,” said Alzner, who calls Williams “one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with.”
“He’s very relaxed about everything,” Holtby said. “That calm preparation — he brings that to our team.”
“He’s loose, you know?” said GM Brian MacLellan. “He has the ability to keep loose mentally, and still bring it competitively and recognize moments in the game where he can have an impact. I think he’s got it figured out mentally.”
“You want to hear what he has to say, and he speaks up at the right times,” T.J. Oshie said.
“And he’s such a respected guy that when he does speak up, guys will listen,” Wilson said.
Williams seemed almost surprised that teammates speak this way about him, and he joked that maybe he should talk more often if they’re so interested in his thoughts. He knows, though, that the Stanley Cups and playoff goals are why so many people turn to him; that “people want what I have,” he said. “I guess they kind of respect the fact that I know what it takes to win.”
Sunday night’s strange home finale was Williams’s 1,000th career game. The congratulatory video, of course, included a nod to his picture-day hair. His standard response to questions about that is, as you’d expect, a grin.
“I mean, every team picture looks the same,” he said. “It’s just something different to spice things up.”
And his on-camera dance in Ottawa, a gif of which quickly wound up in the team’s group chat?
“Same thing,” Williams said. “I was just moving around to the music, enjoying the game, enjoying life, enjoying being part of this team. Sometimes you dance.”
He was being serious. I think.