Stratford’s Dennis Williams has sights set on NHL

Dennis Williams didn’t know what he was getting into when he joined Bowling Green’s men’s hockey staff almost 20 years ago as a volunteer grad assistant.

Coaching would be neat, he figured, especially if he could one day be paid to ride an exercise bike in the back room like the Falcons’ full-time staff.

Then in his early 20s, Williams, a former hometown Stratford Cullitons star just two years removed from his collegiate playing days with the Falcons, realized quickly just how difficult coaching could be. One night he was up until 2 a.m. trying to cut video from one VHS tape to another for head coach Scott Paluch, but it didn’t work.

“I remember stressing like crazy,” he said.

Assistant coach Ron Fogarty helped Williams early the next morning. Crisis averted and lesson learned.

“It was things like that,” Williams, now the Everett Silvertips’ head coach, said. “I look back at that, and we need to go through those experiences so when you get somewhere it’s not as bad.”

Williams is about to enter his fourth season as the Silvertips’ bench boss since taking over from Kevin Constantine in 2017, and he’s learned a few tricks along the way with stops at Utica College, Neumann University, Alabama-Huntsville, Bowling Green for a second stint, Amarillo (NAHL), and Bloomington (USHL) before landing his current job.

“We’ve got great players, great leaders on the team, and I’m fortunate to have a great staff as well,” he said. “It’s been a great three years, a fun three years, and at the end of the day our goal is to win a Memorial Cup, and we haven’t made it yet and we’re still striving for that.”

With Williams behind the bench, the Silvertips have won 140 of 203 regular season games. They made it to the league final in 2018 and lost in the second round the following year. Everett went 46-13-3-1 in 2019-20 and was one point behind first-place Portland when COVID-19 ended up cancelling the rest of the season.

“I really think we have a strong culture here … on the ice and off the ice,” Williams said. “They’ve always had good programs, so when I came here three years ago … first thing I wanted to do was make sure I wasn’t disrupting the apples in the cart.”

Williams added elements he felt would take the team to another level. He doesn’t tolerate stopping on pucks, and he demands players pay attention to defence while encouraging offensive creativity.

The Silvertips’ up-tempo, quick-transition style is, in many ways, reminiscent of the Cullitons’ 1996-97 team that featured Williams, Erik Anderson and Colin Schmidt up front. The trio combined for 153 goals and 406 points — video game-like numbers that are unheard of in today’s game.

“The most fun part of the game is those five-second celebrations after scoring a goal,” Williams said. “There’s nothing more exciting than when the third, fourth line scores. It’s huge. When I played in Stratford, I loved scoring goals Friday night at the Allman Arena. At the end of the day, what players’ roles are on the team, that’s the fun part.”

The game has evolved in many ways since Williams hung up his skates in 2002 after five games with the Central Hockey League’s Odessa Jackalopes.

Communication between players and coaches is different. Williams stays in contact with the Silvertips’ leadership group on a “consistent basis” and checks in to see where players are at physically and mentally, even throughout the summer.

He denounced the toxic culture that led to former Kitchener Rangers player Eric Guest speaking out about alleged bullying incidents that included being forced by a teammate to use cocaine.

“There’s no need for that in hockey,” Williams said. “I don’t know how you get a winning culture and team to buy in with that type of environment. With us, what the 90s or 80s were to today is different. Today’s athlete is different. They’re so self-driven to want to get (ahead). Part of it is explaining to them why we’re doing things and how it will help them. Twenty-five years ago, we were told to do (whatever coaches asked), and we did it.”

Williams signed a contract extension last season that will keep him in the Pacific Northwest through 2022-23 with his wife, Hollie, and girls Emerson, 11, Elyse, 8.

A Memorial Cup title would put him on the radar of National Hockey League clubs if he isn’t there already after being named WHL Western Conference Coach of the Year in 2018 and 2020.

“I’d love to coach in the NHL someday,” he said. “I don’t have a timeline. I think there’s more work to be done in this league, and if anything, you want to make sure you’re ready for that next jump because you have a small window to succeed. Just like we tell our players, everyone wants to get there fast … but it’s better to have another year where you really develop, and you’re even better so when you make that jump you have confidence.

“When that time is right, and if the opportunity presents itself … that’s the time we make that jump.”

cosmith@postmedia.com

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