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As coach and captain, Brind’Amour and Williams inextricably linked in Canes’ success

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour’s career in pictures

Rod Brind'Amour has been named the new Carolina Hurricanes coach. Here are photos from the Hall of Fame player's long and storied career for the Canes.
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Rod Brind'Amour has been named the new Carolina Hurricanes coach. Here are photos from the Hall of Fame player's long and storied career for the Canes.

In the photo, the famous one, of the Carolina Hurricanes on the ice with the Stanley Cup, Rod Brind’Amour is leaning against it, his head close enough to the polished silver bowl to be seen in its reflection. Justin Williams is leaning against Brind’Amour’s chest, Brind’Amour’s arm over Williams’ right shoulder, Williams’ right index finger signaling that the Hurricanes are, indeed, the only team left.

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Rod Brind’Amour, center, and Justin Williams, bottom center, celebrate with the Stanley Cup in June 2006. Chris Seward News & Observer file photo

Even then, in that moment of ultimate triumph, it was hard to separate them, less mentor and protege than kindred spirits. And now, 13 years later, on the eve of another Game 7, it’s no easier

It’s impossible to separate the Hurricanes’ success this season from their coach and captain because this one-year rebuilding process, remaking the team’s mentality as much as the roster, is so inextricably linked with their specific personalities.

Brind’Amour the rookie head coach and Williams the first-time captain joined forces for this: Another Game 7, a chance to restore these kind of moments to this franchise, deprived of them for so long. That they did it so quickly, to the point where they have taken the defending champions to a deciding game, is a tribute to the force of their leadership, but also the force of their partnership.

Win or lose Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals, they were here to bring these moments back.

Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Willams, who has won three Stanley Cups and earned the nickname "Mr. Game 7," says the key is to "trust your instincts" before the Canes faced the Washington Capitals in the playoffs on April 24, 2019.

“You learn a lot about people when it’s win or go home,” said Williams, the NHL’s all-time leader in Game 7 points. “When it’s us or them. It was us, and now it’s them, too. Anything can happen next game, and I’m happy to be playing in it.”

And yet less than a year ago, both had been completely marginalized by the ancien regime, the obtuse Bill Peters and the ineffectual Ron Francis, whose inexplicable decision to spurn Williams as captain after signing him as a free agent to fill that role in 2017 epitomized the eternal dithering of the Francis era.

Fully empowered in last summer’s makeover of the front office and dressing room, Brind’Amour and Williams have crafted this team in their images. It is certainly not the most gifted, nor the fastest, nor the flashiest, but it has been imbued with a willingness to work to the end, to make up for what it lacks in skill with determination. So much of those two as players has been infused into the spirit of this team.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams (14) skates away from a team huddle as head coach Rod Brind’Amour directs players during practice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

That works not only because of their history together, but because they essentially share a hockey brain. Williams has been essential to Brind’Amour’s success as a coach and Brind’Amour essential to Williams’ success as a captain, each fully aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses while implicitly understanding the boundaries of their turf without ever having to discuss it.

The day before the start of a new season, Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams says the Canes have "a little bit of aura in the air about where this team is headed. We feel good about it."

“I was lucky. I said it Day 1,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “The first thing coming in as a coach, I got to do something, we don’t have a captain. I’ve got a guy I know is a captain sitting there, brought in to be that, and I know him, and he knows me. It couldn’t have been any easier.”

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The Canes’ Justin Williams, center, looks on as a well-wisher congratulates Rod Brind’Amour, right, after Brind’Amour was named the new head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL team during a press conference at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC on May 9, 2018. Majority owner Tom Dundon also announced that Don Waddell would be the team’s general manager, a position he has held in the interim since Ron Francis’s departure several weeks ago. Williams and Brind’Amour were teammates on the ice when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2006. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

That was the easy part. This was the hard part, not necessarily making the playoffs, or trying to construct a new culture where making the playoffs is even possible, or attempting to build a foundation for future success. All of that, whether it works or not, was in service of returning to this moment, to play a game worth remembering, win or lose. And to bring that back here, where it came to matter so deeply.

This franchise’s four Game 7 wins in North Carolina are indelibly etched upon the collective memory of this franchise: Brind’Amour willing the Hurricanes to victory over the Sabres; Williams’ empty-netter to kick off the celebration and clinch the Stanley Cup over the Oilers, the first of three for him; the furious 80-second comeback to turn elimination into advancement against the Devils; Scott Walker’s typhoon of emotion in overtime against the Bruins.

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The Canes’ Rod Brind’Amour (17) congratulates teammate Justin Williams (11) after Williams scored during the third period of play on Monday May 22, 2006 at the RBC Center. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

They are memorable because of the stakes, the circumstances, the finality of it all. Williams and Brind’Amour wanted to bring that back, coax it into being again here, restore that legacy, because they knew as well as anyone what it once meant. What had been lost in that decade of irrelevance.

This is relevance.

“So many games in your career that you play, and there’s only a certain amount that actually mean something, that you remember,” Brind’Amour said.

At the least, they have done that. Whether there is an unforgettable photo again or not, they have conjured an unforgettable game, an unforgettable moment. One way or the other.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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