12/04/2009 12:02 AM -
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders for a hockey player’s career.
• Kris Draper was spinning his wheels in Winnipeg before the Detroit Red Wings purchased his contract for $1 some 16 seasons ago.
• Dan Cleary bounced around three organizations before he found his way to Detroit, where he finally fulfilled the promise he had shown as a first-round draft pick.
• Mikael Samuelsson was 28 years old and had been tossed aside by four different NHL teams before he saw his career blossom in Detroit, allowing him to earn a lucrative deal with Vancouver this past summer.
Kris Newbury and Jeremy Williams are hoping to find success in Grand Rapids this season after leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, where they spent the past six seasons.
The Red Wings contacted Newbury on July 1 when he officially became an unrestricted free agent.
“I felt like I had reached the end of the road in Toronto,” Newbury said. “I wanted a change and obviously the fact that the Red Wings compete for a Stanley Cup every season made it an easy decision.”
Williams had also packed his bags, although he wasn’t sure where he was headed.
“When Kris messaged me on July 1st, I had offers from other teams but nothing from Detroit,” Williams said. “Then they called me on July 2 and offered me a contract.”
It was a leap of faith to sign with the Red Wings, a team already laden with talent, but one that both players felt could positively impact their careers.
“You get comfortable in a place, but at some point, you realize it’s time to leave,” Williams said. “I can look back and say it was a good decision. I’m more than happy to be here.”
Although Newbury and Williams have spent most of their pro careers in the AHL, both had seen limited action with the Maple Leafs. Newbury appeared in 44 NHL games over the past three seasons, while Williams played in 31 games over the past four.
“I was always hoping to stay up longer, but I was happy with the opportunity they gave me,” Newbury said. “I remember one time I scored a goal and the next day I found myself back with the Marlies. It’s tough, but that’s the situation you sometimes face.”
“Hockey is really a mental game, especially at the high levels.” Williams said. “When you’re sent down, you’re the first person you should turn to. You look at the stuff, (wondering) if you could have done more.
“I was happy with the way I played in Toronto and I hope that’s the reason Detroit was knocking at the door this summer.”
Williams, in particular, was denied the opportunity to ever get an extended look.
He is believed to be the only player in NHL history to have scored a goal in his first three NHL games, with each game coming in a different season. In fact, in all four seasons in which Williams has been recalled from the minors, he has scored in his first NHL game of the season.
It’s odd statistics like those – plus the fact that Williams has registered a respectable nine goals in 31 career games – that earned him the outspoken support of famed Canadian hockey commentator Don Cherry, who also was campaigning for more playing time for Newbury.
“I’ve met him a bunch of times and he’s always been in my corner,” Williams said. “I grew up listening to Don Cherry, so when my dad’s buddy’s kid called his program on CBC radio and talked to him about me, it was pretty cool. It’s neat to have one of hockey’s greatest icons in your corner.”
Newbury doesn’t hide what he thinks of the man who has co-hosted the long-running Hockey Night in Canada program. “Don Cherry should be the next prime minister of Canada,” he said.
Even so, both players learned not to pay too much attention to the hubbub that haunts the Leafs, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup title since 1967.
“Every year seemed like it was a case of rebuilding and a team trying to find its identity,” William said. “The media there is something you learn to deal with and you try not to get into things, good or bad, because it just adds more stress.”
In comparison to the fishbowl of Toronto, the opportunity to play in Hockeytown seemed like a welcome relief.
“There were no real expectations in Toronto, but the media was definitely hard on the guys,” Newbury said. “In Detroit, there are huge expectations, but it’s different.”
Which is not to say that there isn’t pressure to perform.
“In Detroit, they always want to win and there are a lot of big shoes to fill,” Williams said. “When you step in, you better be ready.”
Both players recognized that things would be different from the day they set foot in training camp in Traverse City. Players came to work, but at the end of the day the atmosphere was more relaxed. Players bonded over dinner and rounds of golf.
Assigned to Grand Rapids by the Red Wings, Newbury and Williams quickly adapted to the organization’s puck-control style of play. “Detroit lets you tie your personal skills into their system and that’s the great thing about being here,” Williams said.
Although both are offensive-minded, Newbury and Williams bring different skill sets to the ice.
Newbury has earned a reputation in the AHL as a player with a pit bull personality. His sandpaper-like style rubs many opponents the wrong way, but his teammates love him for it.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys around the league who hate him,” Williams said. “He’s one of those guys you hate to play against, but you really want him on your team. I think it’s one of the reasons I signed with Detroit. I just didn’t want to deal with him anywhere else.”
Newbury likes to get into people’s faces. He’s an agitator, a constant irritant on the ice.
“I like to get into guys’ faces and talk smack,” Newbury said. “Sometimes I’ll even chirp the other coach. I almost got in a fight in the hallway with one coach after a game a couple of years ago, but I’ve learned my limits.”
When Newbury seems invisible, he’s not doing his job.
“I have to be noticed,” Newbury said. “If I’m playing well, it usually means the other team is rattled. If I can get the whole team going after me, that’s good for our team.”
Williams, on the other hand, is a scoring machine with a wicked wrist shot. He tallied 52 goals during his final junior season in the Western Hockey League.
“My job is to score goals,” Williams said. “This year I’ve also become a penalty killer, which is something I’ve never done in my entire career. I don’t think I killed penalties even in the WHL.”
Williams admits that he is still adjusting to the new role. “I enjoy it and I think it helps you with other parts of your game. I feel like I’m a bit more defensively minded now.”
Both players are still becoming acclimated to life in Grand Rapids.
In the off-season, Newbury lives in his hometown of Brampton with his wife Amanda and their two kids, Jacob and Jaidyn. “It’s a 20-minute drive into Toronto when there’s no traffic, except there’s never ‘no traffic.’”
Williams grew up in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, so he prefers a slower pace rather than the rat race of a major metropolitan area.
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser is pleased with how both players have found their comfort levels.
Fraser believes Newbury was the Griffins’ best player in the team’s first 15 games. “Newbury’s a warrior on the ice – he just competes. He plays in all situations and he’s done a great job. He does everything pretty well,” Fraser said.
Williams also earned praise from Fraser.
“Willie has been the shooter on the power play and he’s shown what his value can be on the offensive side of things. But he’s also done a really good job of helping our penalty kill this year, blocking shots and doing the little things that a pro is expected to do.
“Both of these guys bring good experience and they’re both good leaders. I think both are doing a really nice job for our team right now.”
If Newbury gets bored, he can always get another tattoo. He currently has 13. “Tattoos are almost like an addiction,” he said. “You get one and then you want another.”
He has his references to his parents inked on his body, along with the names of his wife and kids, as well as various artwork, including rolling dice and a horseshoe for luck.
“I know my limits – I’m not going to get any on my neck or face like Mike Tyson,” said Newbury, whose friend runs a tattoo parlor in his basement. “It usually stems from me and my buddies sitting in my backyard. One of them will say, ‘You want to get a tattoo?’ And I’m like, ‘All right!’”
All the tattoos aside, Newbury is a dedicated family man.
“He’s known as a jokester at the rink and likes to have fun with the guys, but when he goes home, his job isn’t over,” Williams said. “I always wondered what he would be like with kids because he’s such a goof in the locker room, but he’s extremely responsible. You can see that side of him when he’s away from work.”
Williams, meanwhile, said Grand Rapids seems like a big city compared to Glenavon, Saskatchewan, the village of 250 where he lives during the off-season.
“My family has a ranch back in Saskatchewan, so I love the slow life,” said Williams, who competed in rodeos until the age of 14. His little sister still competes in high school roping, and his father built a large barn with an indoor roping area just last year.
“My dad hauls rodeo stock throughout western Canada,” he said. “We have about 170 Texas Longhorn cattle that he takes to Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan for rodeos. It’s not the pro circuit, but he loves it.
“It’s like me with hockey. If I didn’t make it as a pro, I’d still be playing whether it was a rec league or a senior league somewhere. He’s doing what he loves and that’s a great thing."
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