Former Stratford Culliton (now Warriors) standout Dennis Williams is Canada’s head coach as the juniors are set to defend gold at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. The tournament is being held in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick from December 26 to January 5.
Williams has a history coaching with Hockey Canada, including winning gold at the 2022 World Junior Championship as an assistant coach back in August. He also won silver at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2019 as an assistant for the U18 team and was as head coach of Canada Black at the 2018 U17 World Hockey Challenge. He is currently in his sixth season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a team based in Washington state where he has an overall record of 203-66-11-11.
The now 44-year-old spent three seasons with his hometown Stratford Cullitons (now Warriors) and says becoming a coach was never something he thought about. “My aspiration was to play in the National Hockey League. I didn’t know what coaching entailed and when I played in college. I thought all the coaches did was ride the bike and work out and I thought it seemed like a pretty good job. Now that I am in it, I realize it’s another beast altogether.” Williams gives a lot of credit to the coaches he had in Stratford throughout minor hockey and at the junior level. “A lot of it has to do with the great mentorship I had. It started at a young age, and I gravitated to coaching once I couldn’t play at a high level anymore.” Among his coaches was the legendary Dennis Flanagan Junior who won five Sutherland Cup championships, one with Williams on the roster.
Williams says if there is something that stands out during his time in Stratford it was the freedom his line was given on the ice which has carried over to his coaching career. “The one thing he allowed us to do as players was to play our game and be creative. He didn’t overcoach which is so important in today’s game but was pretty rare to have back in the day. I don’t remember so much of the tactical side but when we got to the offensive zone, Dennis told us to let our instincts and skillset take over.” He adds with today’s athlete that is a really important part of coaching. “Don’t micromanage them. We stress to play a certain way without the puck but with the puck you have to let your innate abilities take over. Looking back, I coach my guys the same way Dennis coached me.”
The Williams, Eric Anderson and Colin Schmidt line is one of the most productive ever to hit the ice in the now Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. “We played together game in and game out with very little juggling, something I still believe in today. Chemistry is so important. I do think there is a time and a place for changing up lines to get a different look, move a guy up or move a guy down. In my case in Stratford, we all became such good friends off the ice that we were all one family. Colin, who was older, he was like the dad on the line as the older one and he protected us,” he laughs. “I may have been the only one to sit now and then for taking a dumb penalty,” he adds. The trio still gets together as often as possible and Anderson and Schmidt call Stratford home today.
As a player in the GOJHL Williams played 138 games and collected 101 goals, 140 assists, and won a Sutherland Cup title in the 1994-95 season. He would eventually earn a scholarship at Bowling Green University in Ohio before moving to the coaching profession. Anderson, a Michigan native, tallied 269 points and went to St. Lawrence University in New York. Schmidt, from Stratford, picked up 229 points as a Culliton and wound up at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. He also played three seasons for the Waterloo Siskins.
“I keep in touch with those guys quite a bit. We have a group text chat together and I made it home in the summer when the Warriors had a golf tournament. I played with Schmitty and Anderson, and Greg DeVries played in front of us, so I was able to spend a lot of time with those guys.” Williams says he spent a few days in the area visiting his family including brother Dave, the current head coach of the Stratford Warriors and also a GOJHL alumni. Dave is no slouch in the coaching department having been named the OHA’s Coach of the Year in 2020.
One of Williams’ fondest memories is a regular Friday night at the ancient Allman Arena in Stratford, something he says didn’t really hit him until a recent visit with his wife and daughters. “Seeing the rink, the smell of the rink. The Stratford experience is really hard to describe. There was nothing better than a Friday night in Stratford. I grew up as a kid going to all the games. We would go out for dinner as a family then head to the arena to watch the Cullitons and it would be rocking.” He adds as a player there was no better rivalry than the Waterloo Siskins or the Elmira Sugar Kings. “When I came back to watch a game it was just an instant smile when I looked at the trophies and the photos, and I even ordered a swamp water from the snack bar. I am grateful and so proud to say I came from Stratford and was a Culliton.”
Despite serving as an assistant on Team Canada at the summer world junior tournament and earning a gold medal, Williams says being offered the top job is a different feeling. “I remember the call. I was in Brandon, Manitoba and I will always remember that. I was ecstatic and I couldn’t wait to call my wife and kids, and my parents. As a kid growing up in Canada, Boxing Day was two things – watching the world juniors and going shopping to get your deal with your Christmas money.” He adds the opportunity to represent Canada and coach the best of the best junior hockey players is something he could have never dreamed about early on in his coaching career. “Before I came to the WHL there was definitely not even a thought about coaching for Canada. I was never good enough to play in it, so this is the next best thing. My family will all be there with me and its as important to them as it is to myself, and I couldn’t be happier to give this them the opportunity to watch the tournament.”