Will Hurricanes Culture Survive Justin Williams

As the smoke cleared on the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2018-19 NHL season, one observation outshone the others. The culture has changed for this team. The challenge going forward will be to maintain that culture and not lose the momentum it has created.

Culture of Mediocrity

For the past decade, the Hurricanes were mired in a culture of mediocrity and questionable effort. Many postgame press conferences started with the inane, “We did not start on time,” observation by the head coach.

After the season in April 2015, I spoke with most of the Hurricanes players individually as they were cleaning out their lockers. I asked each one of them about the phenomenon of not starting on time. Most said it was up to the individual to get themselves ready, as illustrated by this response from Justin Faulk: 

I think that is up to the individual. I think each guy needs to come ready to go, whether it’s myself or anyone else. I think you gotta do whatever you need to do to get ready to go whether it’s seven o’clock or one o’clock in the afternoon. You need to show up, know that you gotta play the game, know that’s what you’re here to do.

Justin Faulk, Patrice Bergeron
Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk and Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? After all, professional athletes getting paid seven figures to play a game they love shouldn’t lack the ability to mentally prepare themselves. But, strange as it may have sounded for four of the past five years, that was the culture of the Hurricanes.

Peters Opened the Door to Culture Change

Former Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters exercised the option in his contract that allowed him to leave a year early. He went to the Calgary Flames and opened a door of opportunity that few, if any, saw coming. It was an opportunity to change a culture that accepted not starting on time and embrace a new mindset and new standards.

It was time for Rod Brind’Amour and his impact on the mentality of the Hurricanes was immediate. His own personal philosophy of hard work, determination and not giving up was bought into. The seed of not quitting was planted and within a few weeks had germinated, sprouted, and grown to the point that it was bearing fruit.

Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

The most significant thing that Brind’Amour did was naming Justin Williams the team’s captain. The bizarre move made by Peters a season prior to not name Williams captain was corrected, and a new era began to emerge in North Carolina. By season’s end, the team had changed and the reward was a spot in the playoffs.

Williams Taking His Time

Of course, the burning question surrounding the Hurricanes is whether or not Williams will play another season or retire. At the end of season exit interviews, Williams told the media he would take some time to decide whether he will be back.

Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams San Jose Sharks Martin Jones
Carolina Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams jumps as the Hurricanes score on San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

An unrestricted free agent this postseason, Williams has yet to make his decision, or at least make it public. While hockey tradition says that most teams like to have their rosters in place by the end of July, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said in a telephone press conference last week that the team is not stressing Williams’ indecision. Waddell said,

We really feel like we’ve got some good young players that are knocking on the door. So yes, we need to get a decision, but I don’t think it needs to happen immediately.

Waddell went on to elaborate by saying, “It’s one thing if we didn’t have the players that we have down in Charlotte, but if you go up and down that roster, there are four or five guys that could compete for jobs here. So if Justin decides not to come back, I feel good that we’ll have players that will be knocking on that door to win that opportunity.”

When I asked Williams if the team could keep the new culture that he helped build going if he is gone, or if it was a one-season thing that will be tough to duplicate even if he stays, he said,

That’s what I know, that’s what I know to do. That’s what Roddy knows how to do…we won the way we know is the recipe for winning.

Without giving a clue as to whether he is coming back, Williams seemed to say that the culture change will continue if he stays – that’s what he knows to do – or if he leaves, because Brind’Amour knows how to do it, also.

Look for the Hurricanes to grind and play to each game’s end in the upcoming season. Some faces may change on the roster, but the culture of playing hard will last beyond Williams as long as Brind’Amour is the coach.