A year ago, defenseman Colby Williams was literally one of the happiest campers at the Capitals’ annual development camp. Taken by the Caps in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL draft as an over-age junior, Williams could not have known then he was about to embark on the most trying season of his hockey career.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” Williams, 21, said on Friday after signing a one-year contract with the Hershey Bears of the AHL. “You go through such an emotional high of getting draft and coming to development camp and feeling pretty confident about yourself and then a pretty bad accident and it takes a turn for the worse.”
A freak accident last summer left Williams with a severe laceration of his right arm and significant nerve damage. He underwent surgery and missed the first two months of the Western Hockey League’s regular season, returning to the Regina Pats in mid-November. But when Williams continued having trouble with grip strength and mobility in his right hand, it was decided a second surgery was needed to remove scar tissue and regenerate nerve activity.
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During a procedure on Jan. 6 in Edmonton, surgeons took nerves from Williams’ left leg and inserted them into his right arm to provide a better conduit for the nerves.
“The second one took a lot better and the nerves regenerated,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “The surgeon told him it would be a length of time before he gets his hand back to full strength and you can’t speed time up.”
Williams returned to the Pats’ lineup in early March and finished the season strong, recording two goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games.
“I was fortunate to have guys in the locker room like Hobbsy (Connor Hobbs), and (Adam) Brooks and (Aaron) Macklin and all the coaches,” Williams said. “They were super supportive. Even when I wasn’t playing they made me feel part of the team and that helped a lot.”
After the season, Williams and Regina teammate Connor Hobbs, who was drafted by the Caps in the fifth round last year and signed by the Caps on Friday to an entry-level contract, were invited to Hershey to spend time with the Bears during their run to the Calder Cup finals.
“I think it was a good opportunity for me and Hobbsy to come up (to Hershey) and experience everything we did,” Williams said. “Going to the Calder Cup final was an unbelievable experience. Coming up as a callup, I wasn’t expecting them to bring us in the way they did. Justin Peters, Mike Moore, Tyler Lewington, Chandler Stephenson -- Garrett Mitchell treated me like a son. They made it a lot easier going into next year.”
Williams, whose junior eligibility expired last season, said he wondered if his disjointed season -- he finished with five goals and seven assists in 19 games – would prevent him from landing a pro contract.
“It came across my mind,” he said. “But during the process I was just thinking about getting back and playing. It feels good (to get a contract). Maybe a little weight off my shoulders. I can use it as a stepping stone to get my foot in the door. I’m pretty fortunate to play the game I love and do it for a living for the next year or so. I’m excited to get that going.”
Hobbs, who will return to Regina next season, said he couldn’t be happier for Williams.
“I know just from being one of his really good friends that it’s been really hard for him and I’m just so happy for him,” Hobbs said.
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