Skip to content

Canadian head coach took road less travelled to world junior spotlight

Dennis Williams accepted the job and packed the car without a second thought.

Dennis Williams accepted the job and packed the car without a second thought.

A young hockey mind looking for another chance, he also sported a slightly bruised ego.

Williams had taken over as interim head coach at Bowling Green in the NCAA ranks the previous season, but was ultimately turned down for the full-time position.

When his phone rang with a unique offer in the wake of that 2010 disappointment, he jumped at the chance – coaching in the NAHL, a second-tier junior circuit that dots the U.S. with teams as far away as Alaska.

Doubt, however, crept into his mind as he rolled into the Texas Panhandle with his wife and young daughter.

“We’d never been to Amarillo. We didn’t even go see it,” Williams recalled of the city roughly 600 kilometres northwest of Dallas. “I remember driving in thinking, ‘Man, did I make the right decision? This is the only place I can coach in the world?’”

His path through the sport has been long and winding. It also eventually led the Stratford, Ont., native to fulfil one of his life ambitions – coach Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

Williams will be in that big chair for the 2023 event, which begins Boxing Day in Halifax and Moncton, N.B. He served as an assistant on Dave Cameron’s staff that helped the country win its 19th gold medal in August at a tournament delayed eight months by COVID-19.

“Very humbled,” said the 43-year-old head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips. “It’s a great honour.”

The journey that brought Williams to this point – one where he’ll be calling the shots for a star-studded roster featuring Connor Bedard and Shane Wright – included a lot more stops than just Amarillo.

But it started at Stratford’s William Allman Memorial Arena.

“A second home,” recalled older brother Dave Williams. “Nights that we didn’t play he was down at the rink watching other teams and running around.”

Dennis Williams would go on to star for his hometown Stratford Cullitons junior B team in the mid-1990s. There was no doubt he could put the puck in the net. He also didn’t mind stirring things up.

“Had a tendency of getting under players’ skins,” Dave, four years older, said with a laugh. “Bit of a rat.”

Dave has one faceoff from their only season playing together for the Cullitons – now known as the Warriors – seared in his memory.

“When the puck got dropped, Dennis lifted his right skate and stepped on the other guy’s stick blade, broke it, and got a penalty,” said Dave Williams, who now coaches Stratford’s team. “I remember driving home with him telling him how fortunate he was dad was not at the rink.

“Dennis definitely had the ability to make the game interesting.”

Jason Clarke, who grew up alongside the brothers and now runs the Warriors, remembers Dennis as “very skilled and super gritty.”

“A lot of those guys don’t exist in the game anymore,” Clarke said. “Wasn’t afraid to step it up with anybody on the ice at any time. I think that leads to a lot of his passion. Those type of guys work for everything and they get rewarded.

“That personality trait has carried him a great distance in coaching.”

Dennis Williams would eventually head south to play college hockey at Bowling Green. After a brief attempt suiting up in the pros, he moved into the U.S. post-secondary coaching ranks at various levels – an odyssey that initially took him from Utica, N.Y., to Aston, Penn., to Birmingham, Ala.

“No clue what I was doing,” he said of those early days. “It’s like any player. The short-term experience you get defines if you want to choose that path.”

He knew it was all he wanted. Williams returned to Bowling Green as an assistant and eventually got that interim opportunity that wouldn’t materialize into the full-time gig.

“(A mentor) told me once, ‘You’re never a coach until you’re fired or a player until you’re traded,’” Williams said.

So, he dusted himself off and headed to Amarillo to lead the Bulls.

“Humble pie dropping a few rungs down,” Williams said. “But I just wanted to coach.”

And for the next four years, he fully embraced life in the community about halfway between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, N.M., in north Texas.

“It allowed me to re-ground myself,” Williams said. “Rewired me and probably motivated me.

“Wouldn’t trade my time there for anything.”

Williams and his wife, Hollie, bought a house and lived in Amarillo year-round with their daughter, Emerson, before younger sister Elyse arrived on the scene.

“Wasn’t long until I had three or four pairs of cowboy boots,” he said. “Went to a couple high school football games and enjoyed the ‘Friday Night Lights’ atmosphere just like the movies.”

The most important connection career-wise was with Canadian businessman Bill Yuill, who owned the Bulls. He eventually promoted Williams to his USHL team in 2014 and brought him to the WHL with Everett three seasons later.

“If I didn’t go to Amarillo, I probably wouldn’t be in a position to coach the world juniors,” Williams said. “You’re taking players that didn’t make the USHL, so they came up with a chip on the shoulder and really motivated to prove people wrong.”

He’s enjoyed plenty of success since, winning at least 45 games in each of his four full campaigns with Everett, including a trip to the WHL final.

That helped get him onto Hockey Canada’s radar and he moved up the ranks from there.

But Williams won’t forget where he came from – and the path taken – when he steps into the spotlight Monday.

“Those years defined me and brought me here,” he said. “I learned a lot during those times. You don’t have all the resources and help.

“I don’t take the opportunity to coach the world junior team for granted.”

When you’ve got a resume like Williams, it’s easy to understand why.