Williams, a spritely, laughing 99-year-old who was born in 1908, was in the old Ottawa Auditorium arena the night the Ottawa Senators won their last Stanley Cup on April 13, 1927.
The former truck driver, roads inspector, tire jockey and warehouse worker also attended the first game of the expansion Senators at the Civic Centre in October 1992 when NHL hockey returned to Ottawa after a 58-year hiatus.
And on Saturday night, Williams was the guest of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk at Scotiabank Place watching the Senators play the Anaheim Ducks in the first Stanley Cup game in the capital in 80 years.
He received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd when he was introduced halfway through the second period. Williams stood and doffed his Senators cap to the crowd.
“I can name you all the players but one on that (1927) Stanley Cup team,” Williams said Saturday morning at his home in west-end Ottawa, where he lives with his son and grandson, both also named Russell.
Williams was resting after his daily walk, and it troubled him that he couldn’t recall who paired on defence with George (Buck) Boucher.
The Senators – a fearsome group that included future Hall-of-Famers Boucher, Jack Adams, King Clancy, Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor – defeated a Boston Bruins club that night coached by Art Ross.
It was the first year the Cup was an exclusively NHL challenge – and Clancy, Adams and Ross all went on to have individual NHL player trophies named after them.
How’s that for a slice of hockey history?
“As far as I’m concerned, a lot of people (say) ‘Oh the hockey was better years ago.’ I don’t go for it at all,” Williams said. “I think the hockey years ago was terrible.
“They played more of a defensive style of hockey and today it’s wider open. That’s the kind of hockey I like – wide open hockey.”
He recalls the 1927 game as one of dump with no chase.
“At that time I wouldn’t call it a fast game,” he said. “The puck would go to the other end and very seldom would they go after it. They’d skate back and wait for the other team.”
The Senators, Williams added, “had a good defensive man in Frank Nighbor, the poke-check man. Very few got past him.”
Not just the NHL, but the country was in its infancy.
That year, the United States opened formal diplomatic relations with Canada as a fully sovereign entity separate from British Commonwealth. The boundary between the dominion and Newfoundland was formally clarified, as were the English words to O Canada. The carillon in the Peace Tower in Ottawa was inaugurated.
Williams walked several kilometres from his home to the western end of the streetcar line that fine April evening to catch the train into Ottawa.
“Of course, nobody around here had a car at that time that I can remember,” he said.
Denneny scored the winner in a 3-1 Ottawa victory for the Cup, Williams recalled.
“It was very noisy, very noisy,” he said. “After the game everybody poured out onto the street and nobody seemed to want to go home.”
The NHL left Ottawa in 1934 and didn’t return for 58 years. Williams, whose hockey passions had transferred to the Montreal Canadiens in the Senators’ absence, was there to see the expansion team defeat the Habs 5-3 in their home opener. It was one of just 10 Ottawa victories that 1992-93 season, while Montreal went on to win the Stanley Cup, the last by a Canadian team.
“I never thought they’d be back, and I never could figure out why,” Williams said of the 58-year NHL break. “Ottawa supported the team pretty well.”
Williams represents just the deepest layer in an archeological dig of hockey history that is this year’s Stanley Cup final.
Saturday’s game marks the first time a game in the NHL final has been played on Ontario ice since the Maple Leafs won it all in 1967 – 40 years and one month ago to the day.
A guy named Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s justice minister that year, the country was celebrating its centennial and the NHL had just six teams.
Anaheim, incidentally, has a chance to become the first West Coast team to claim the Stanley Cup since the Victoria Cougars turned the trick in 1925.
Williams doesn’t recall that series, but he has a vague recollection of Ottawa’s 1923 Stanley Cup win. He’s seen an awful lot of history – and changes – in the NHL as Stanley finally returns to Ottawa.
He remembers buying standing room tickets in “the rush end” at the old Aud for 25 cents, while seats cost a little over a buck, rising to about $10 for playoff games.
“The prices! A hundred and seventy five dollars a seat to see a hockey game?” said Williams. “That’s what my neighbour told me he paid – $175!”
On Saturday night, he was the guest of the team owner.
Is it Williams’ last chance to see the Senators win another Stanley Cup?
“I get lots of exercise and I feel good. I figure I’m due for a few more years, anyway,” said Williams with yet another chuckle. “I’d like to make the hundred, anyway.”