Tri-City Americans

Ams coach nearing 1,000th game in WHL

Tri-City Americans coach Mike Williamson stands behind his players on the bench during the annual New Year’s game against Spokane in the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Williamson will coach in his 1,000th WHL game this week.
Tri-City Americans coach Mike Williamson stands behind his players on the bench during the annual New Year’s game against Spokane in the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Williamson will coach in his 1,000th WHL game this week. Tri-City Herald

In hockey, player milestones like first goal, first hat trick and first shutout are celebrated.

The same goes for coaches.

Tri-City coach Mike Williamson will coach his 1,000th Western Hockey League game Wednesday in Victoria, British Columbia, when the Americans take on the Royals in the second of two games on Vancouver Island. The first game is Tuesday.

“I didn’t know,” Williamson said of the milestone. “It goes by fast. Westy (Americans radio broadcaster Craig West) mentioned something a few weeks ago, and I was caught off guard. I was given an opportunity at a real young age when I finished playing. I have been fortunate to work with three really good organizations. A lot of good good coaches, management and players. It’s always a great thing to be able to come to the rink and be in the game of hockey.”

Going into Tuesday’s game, Williamson has coached 998 regular-season games with a 474-432-38-23 record with 31 ties.

He will become the seventh WHL coach to work 1,000 games. The others are Ken Hodge (1,411), Don Nachbaur (1,189), Don Hay (1,144), Ernie McLean (1,067), Lorne Molleken (1,066) and Peter Anholt (1,015).

Nachbaur (Spokane), Hay (Kamloops) and Molleken (Vancouver) still are coaching.

Coaching carousel

Williamson, 42, got his coaching start as an assistant with Portland after he finished his playing days with the Winterhawks.

A native of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, he spent 15 years with Portland as a player and coach. Portland hit rock bottom in the WHL during the 2006-07 season, and Williamson was let go.

He got back into coaching in 2009 with Calgary. During the 2010 playoffs, the Hitmen defeated the Americans for the WHL title and advanced to the Memorial Cup.

During the 2013-14 season, the Hitmen finished tied atop the Eastern Conference with the Edmonton Oil Kings with 103 points. Calgary took an early exit from the playoffs with a first-round loss to the Kootenay Ice.

The Americans hired Williamson to replace Jim Hiller in May 2014.

The memories

So many games, so many players.

Williamson was an assistant in Portland when the Winterhawks won the Memorial Cup in 1998.

He took the Calgary Hitmen to the Memorial Cup in 2010, but they did not make the finals.

“That’s what you play for,” Williamson said. “We play to win — whether you are playing or coaching. When you have an opportunity to win a championship, that’s what it’s all about. It’s great to see the guys move on, and turn on the TV and see them play or visit with some of the players who have gone on to school and their profession and use the education money. That’s always rewarding.”

The players

Williamson has coached hundreds of players over the years, and like every coach, there are those who hold a special place in their heart.

Paul Gaustad, Cody McLeod, Brendan Morrow and Adam Deadmarsh are Portland players he won’t soon forget.

“Probably the guys who weren’t necessarily on the NHL radar, but guys who worked so hard they gave themselves an opportunity to have NHL careers,” Williamson said. “Those guys, those underdogs who find a way to scrap and claw to get up there are the ones you root for.

“Last year we were fortunate — it was my first year and their last — but Justin Hamonic and Eric Comrie were two of the better leaders and teammates that I’ve had a chance to coach. To watch them now progress, whether it be their pro careers or where they go and keep in touch, those are the things are are most rewarding.”

Brandon Dubinsky played for Williamson in Portland and stays in touch. As does Braydon Coburn and McLeod.

“Cody McLeod married a girl from Portland, so this summer he was back for a couple of weeks,” Williamson said. “He drove up (to the Tri-Cities) in the morning to meet with Inch (Innes Mackie), Pelli (Brian Pellerin) and I to play a round of golf and drove back. It’s nice to see these guys. You work with them as young men and see them mature and just to get a chance to visit with them and know the impact you had on them is pretty special.”

Over the Christmas break, former Tri-City forward Lucas Nickles was in town, and Williamson was able to catch up with him.

“He has gone on to the University of Alberta,” Williamson said. “That next phase of his life, and I got to talk to him a little bit about that and the process for him. It’s just neat to see how much they appreciate their time in juniors — their billets, the fans and the community. The guys are really fortunate to play here.”

Life in the Tri-Cities

It’s a big adjustment moving from Calgary to Kennewick, but it didn’t take long for the Williamson family (wife Michelle, daughter Leeah and son Nicholas) to feel at home.

“The one thing we noticed right away is there is a big sense of community,” Williamson said. “It’s a bit of a smaller city compared to bigger places we’ve lived, but the people are very, very welcoming. Our kids met friends right away, the people in our neighborhood are very friendly. It’s very easy to find people to socialize with. It’s just seems like a place where you need help, someone will be there for you.”

Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574, @TCHIceQueen