NCAA Save Pct. Leader, Charles Williams, is a Rarity, But Wants to Change That
by Tony Jovenitti
When he was 13, Charles Williams moved from Detroit to the suburb of Canton. All the kids there were playing hockey, so Williams and his brother taught each other to skate so they could play, too. Soon enough, they both started netting plenty of goals, but something still wasn’t right.
“We both would have 7 or 8 goals, but we would lose 16-14 or something crazy like that,” Williams said.
He told his brother “If you keep scoring, I’ll try and stop the puck.” So he told his coach he’d volunteer to play goalie.
“Then we were winning every game — giving up 1 or 2 goals. That’s how it stuck,” he said. “I enjoyed the pleasure of stopping the puck and seeing the frustrated look on the players.”
Now, as one of just a few black players to ever play goalie in NCAA men’s college hockey, he leads the nation in save percentage.
After earning the starting position early this year, Williams helped backstop Canisius to a 15-game unbeaten streak to end the regular season, which culminated in winning the school’s first Atlantic Hockey regular-season title. In addition to leading the country in save percentage (.944), he’s tied for most shutouts (5) and he has the second-best goals-against average (1.83).
The path to get there, however, was winding and challenging in more ways than one.
Williams spent four years at Ferris State, where he faced tough competition for playing time — seeing action in just 20 games through three years. Because of a medical redshirt his junior year, he graduated with one year of eligibility remaining. Canisius assistant coach Trevor Large is a Ferris State alumnus and got word of Williams, and invited him to compete for a spot with the Golden Griffins.
“We knew that he had been a good goalie, but we knew that it didn’t go as he had planned at Ferris so he was looking for an opportunity,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “He came in right away, and he didn’t talk, he just worked. He was sincere, he was mature, and he was competitive.”
A few different goalies got starts early on for the Griffins, including Daniel Urbani and last year’s starter Simon Hofley. They all showed promise, but Williams was just a step above them, according to Smith. He also fit in well with the team’s chemistry.
“I think, as a leader, he was welcomed in because he didn’t force it,” Smith said. “He didn’t try to make himself a leader, he just let it happen naturally.”
Though certainly not wanting to be defined as just “the black goalie,” Williams doesn’t shy away from it either. After all, it’s indeed a rarity in the NCAA
According to our research, African-American goaltenders in college hockey are scarce. In recent years, there was Jordan Tibbett from 2010-14 with Mercyhurst, and Michigan Tech’s Jamie Phillips. Before that, the last African-American goalie in the NCAA was Eustace King with Miami in 1996, over 20 years ago. King played sparingly until his senior year, when he played 17 games and had a .868 save percentage.
Prior to that, there was Peter Harris at Lowell from 1986-90, who again played sparingly, 16 games with an .845 save percentage. His son, Elijah, is a goalie and was at one point committed to Brown, though is not anymore. Finally, there was Carey Gandy, a native of Huntsville, Ala., who played at Dartmouth from 1981-83 and also had a save percentage well south of .900. (If there are others, please feel free to let us know. Our apologies if any were missed. Ed.)
That makes Williams certainly the most successful of that group.
Williams also hopes to be a leader for young black kids, similar to the positive influence players like Willie O’Ree, the first African-American to play in the NHL, and long-time NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes had on him. In Michigan, Williams participated in “Hockey in the Hood,” where he learned about the game directly from his role models.
“Willie O’Ree would put on a camp for two or three weeks for kids who were less fortunate. They were able to come out with whatever they had and skate,” he said. “We would do practices, have fun skates with the parents, and you get to talk and listen to O’Ree and Weekes. That was great to be a part of, and I saw how fortunate we were.
“Hockey is a very expensive sport, so it’s tough sometimes for kids who have the talent and skills but just can’t afford it. Being aware and noticing that helped me tremendously in terms of not taking things for granted, and knowing that this is a blessing.”
For those reasons, he wants to help expand the game. And he remembers how important it was for him to have those role models in the spotlight when he was learning the sport. He wants to continue that work and encourage even more young athletes.
“I know how hard these kids work and I want to be able to give them any kind of outlet, whether it’s one kid or 100,” he said. “It will definitely mean a lot to me and that’s something I see myself doing for years down the road.
“I saw those guys reaching out to kids, knowing that these kids want to be just like them. When they see that, it really motivates them. For me, I was watching guys like Ray Emery, Kevin Weekes and recently Wayne Simmonds, Mike Grier, guys like that.”
Interestingly, Eustace King went on to do precisely that. A native of Evanston, Ill., and son of Jamaican immigrants, he got into the game as a boy by watching Northwestern’s club hockey team practices. A mentor of his helped subsidize King’s playing for youth teams, something his parents couldn’t afford.
After Miami, King went on to become a mentor to others, as a well-respected player agent with clients including Simmonds, Chris Stewart, Emerson Etem, Raffi Torres and T.J. Oshie. And, it should be known, he helped negotiate Weekes’ first television contract, and also represents O’Ree, who is now the NHL’s director for youth development and diversity ambassador — the two guys Charles Williams directly speaks about.
“I don’t have these athletes who happen to be minorities because I’m black,” King told The Color of Hockey blog in 2013. “It’s because I’m highly capable and I happen to be black. One critical point is I understand their history and background, being West Indian or being African-American, and being able to relate to them. That’s the piece that makes the bond that we have so much greater and we’ve been able to accomplish the things we’ve been able to do. … I really believe that a young man needs anywhere from a minimum 4 to 6 mentors in his life. It’s going to be his parents, his coaches, it’s also going to be friends … the ones that are positive.”
Smith has no doubt that Williams will be that kind of role model.
“I see Charles as a role model for all hockey players. He is a special person,” Smith said. “We have a lot of great kids, but Charles is special. He is a unique blend of maturity, work ethic and sincerity.
“He’s a world class person.”