Barrie Colts coach Marty Williamson recently notched his 500th career win as an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) bench boss.
A week after that victory, in OT over the Sarnia Sting on home ice, the 59-year-old had some interesting perspectives on how the OHL has changed in his 14 seasons behind the bench.
“There is just so much skill now,” he said. “… It used to be that you’d have two, three or maybe a few more guys that brought that sort of skill. Now almost every player has it … It’s almost like the opposite now. You have to really work hard to find the (character) players.”
Williamson is the father of two grown children who came to Barrie for the first time in 2004 and stayed for six seasons. When he arrived, the team was still suffering somewhat from damage to its reputation after the chaos of the 1999-2000 season — its only modern OHL championship but one beset with problems, most of which were preventable.
Williamson took charge and provided long-term stability at a time when the team underwent ownership change, from the Massie family to Howie Campbell and his partners, the current group.
Williamson has been gratified by the messages he’s received from former players. He credited working with both the Massies and Campbell as significant factors in his longevity and mentioned two former NHL defencemen — Mike Van Ryn and Drake Berehowsky — as particularly notable assistants.
“They’ve really helped me along the way,” he said of Van Ryn, whom he worked with in Niagara, and of Berehowsky, in Barrie.
Williamson is one of nine OHL coaches to record 500 victories — a group that includes original Colts coach Bert Templeton — and one of just two active men to cross that threshold, along with Dale Hunter in London.
The highlight of Williamson’s first stint in Barrie was taking the team to the 2010 league final, which it lost in four games to the powerhouse Windsor Spitfires.
“In (retrospect), a team that had Taylor Hall and some others, we were (in tough),” remembered Williamson.
Williamson left soon after for the Niagara IceDogs, who he twice took to the league final, losing both times to the London Knights, first in 2012 and again in 2016.
“I thought maybe 2016 would be the year, but Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk had other ideas,” he said of the star-studded Knights squad that eventually won the Memorial Cup in dramatic fashion in Red Deer, Alta.
Williamson would probably acknowledge he isn’t the sexiest name in junior hockey coaching circles. Some in that insular world were surprised he was given a second opportunity in Barrie. But it’s hard to argue with his longevity and, well, 500 wins and three OHL final appearances speak for themselves.
— Barrie Colts (@OHLBarrieColts) November 20, 2022
A more nuanced sign of Williamson’s coaching acumen is going back over his three conference championship teams. Though he had several stars at his disposal in 2012 who are now playing in the NHL, the 2010 Colts and the 2016 squad in Niagara were largely a meat-and-potatoes bunch, with big names sprinkled in.
Both of those teams pushed all the way to the OHL final over more talented squads.
That 2016 IceDogs team swept the Colts in the 2016 Eastern Conference final, and his predecessor, Dale Hawerchuk, would have known how good of a job Williamson had done in Niagara.
Hawerchuk had a significant hand in him coming back to Barrie.
“Dale had said that maybe the team needed another voice,” Williamson recalled of his return to Barrie, first in an adviser role while he still was working at Brock University, handling that school’s men’s team. “I had looked up to Dale, watched him as a player. He was the guy (on the other bench) but I really got to know him and became (a better) coach because of Dale, I think.”
Hawerchuk’s premature death from cancer two years ago is something that still defines the Colts. It’s almost as if, until a winning season with a playoff series victory or two takes place, the team can’t completely move on to its next chapter because of the late Hall of Famer’s considerable legacy.
But if you dig deeper into Williamson’s story, there is an inspirational tale hiding in plain sight.
In 2015, Williamson was not feeling well. Wrapped up in a playoff series, he didn’t think too much of it but finally followed IceDogs staff advice to get looked at by a doctor.
He was a ticking time bomb.
A major artery — darkly referred to as the widow maker by the medical community — was about to embolize and he was rushed into surgery. Six hours of surgery and many tense moments followed but he made it through.
In the end, he escaped almost certain death by no more than weeks, probably mere days.
He had just turned 53.
“It was probably hardest on my family,” he said, “but it makes you realize (your mortality) when you have to prepare paperwork in case you don’t make it.”