Canadian head coach sets off on the road less traveled to catch the attention of the world’s youth

Dennis Williams accepted the job and packed the car without hesitation.

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

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

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

However, doubt entered his mind as he entered the Texas Panhandle with his wife and young daughter.

“We had never been to Amarillo. We didn’t even go to see it,” Williams recalls, the city about 600 kilometers northwest of Dallas. “‘While I was driving, ‘Dude, did I make the right decision? Is this the only place in the world I can coach?’ I remember thinking.

His path in sports was long and winding. It also eventually led his native Stratford, Ont. to fulfill one of his passions in life – coaching Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

Williams will be in that big chair for the 2023 event, which kicks off on Boxing Day in Halifax and Moncton, NB. He served as an assistant on the staff of Dave Cameron, who helped the country win its 19th gold medal in a tournament delayed eight months due to COVID-19 in August.

“He’s very humble,” said the 43-year-old head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips. “It’s a great honor.”

The journey that got Williams to this point—where Connor Bedard and Shane Wright would make the decisions for a star-studded roster—involved far more stops than just Amarillo.

But it started at the William Allman Memorial Arena in Stratford.

“A second home,” his older brother, Dave Williams, recalled. “The nights we weren’t playing, he was watching the other teams on the track and running around.”

WATCH | Canada beat Slovakia in the men’s world junior pre-tournament match:

Canada’s World Junior team shows no mercy in Slovakia debacle

Josh Roy scored and added an assist as Canada defeated Slovakia 6-1 in the World Junior pre-match on Wednesday.

Dennis Williams would play for his hometown Stratford Culliton’s junior B team in the mid-1990s. There was no doubt that he could get the puck into the nets. He didn’t hesitate to stir things up either.

“He had a tendency to go under the guise of actors,” said Dave, who was four years his senior, with a laugh. “A little mouse.”

Dave has a memorable encounter from their only season together for the Cullitons, now known as the Warriors.

“When the puck dropped, Dennis lifted his right skate and stepped on the other man’s stick blade, broke it and took a penalty,” said Dave Williams, who currently coaches Stratford’s team. “I remember his father saying how lucky he was not to be on the track.

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

Jason Clarke, who grew up with the brothers and currently runs the Warriors, remembers Dennis as “very talented and super brave.”

“Many of these guys are no longer in the game,” Clarke said. “He wasn’t afraid to step things up with anyone on the ice at any given time. I think that fuels his passion. These types of guys work for anything and are rewarded.”

“This personality trait has taken him a great distance in coaching.”

Coaching start

Dennis Williams would eventually go south to play college hockey at Bowling Green. After a short tryout fit for the pros, he moved through the ranks of US post-secondary coaching at various levels – a journey that initially took him from Utica, NY to Aston, Penn., Birmingham, Ala.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” he said in those early days. “Like any player. The short-term experience you gain determines whether you want to take this path.”

He knew it was all he wanted. Williams returned to Bowling Green as an assistant, eventually securing this interim opportunity that would not turn into a full-time job.

“[A mentor] Williams once told me, ‘You’re not a coach until you’re fired, you’re not a player until you’re traded.

So he pulled himself together and went to Amarillo to lead the Bulls.

“The humble pie goes down a few steps,” Williams said. “But I just wanted to coach.”

And over the next four years, he fully embraced life in the community between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, NM in north Texas.

“It made me re-ground myself,” Williams said. “It reshaped me and probably motivated me.

“I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything.”

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

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

The most important career connection was with the Canadian businessman Bill Yuill, the owner of the Bulls. He eventually promoted Williams to the 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’s youth,” Williams said.

Since then, he has had many successes with Everett, winning at least 45 games in each of his four full campaigns, including a trip to the WHL final.

This helped it land on Hockey Canada’s radar, and from there it rose to the top.

But Williams won’t forget where he came from and the way he went when he came into the limelight on Monday.

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

“I do not underestimate the opportunity to coach the world youth team.”

When you have a resume like Williams, it’s easy to see why.

WATCH | Canada beat Switzerland in the men’s world junior show match:

Connor Bedard and Canadian youth dominate Switzerland

Bedard beat Switzerland 6-0 with three assists, including a great stareless pass, to power Canada.

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