Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
'He loved to play the game': Family fears concussions contributed to teen hockey star's death
He was a rising star in the junior hockey circuit, a fearless competitor whose work ethic both on and off the ice won him many admirers.
But he was also a troubled young man, his brain rocked by eight diagnosed concussions and his world shattered when his biggest fan -- his dad -- was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
And so, on a warm summer's evening late last month, Ethan Williams did something that nobody saw coming.
He stopped fighting.
The 16-year-old Winnipeg boy ended his life in the garage of his family's West Kildonan residence. It was a shock to his parents, his four siblings and left a hockey community reeling.
His sudden death has also led to many questions, including what role the trauma he suffered playing the game he loved may have contributed to the depression he couldn't defeat.
* * *
A tattered old hockey net sits in the backyard of the Southall Drive home. It's where Ethan Williams would spend hours working on his slapshot, snapshot and the notorious "dangles" that would turn opponents inside-out.
But it's also quite telling what hangs next to his net: A punching bag, where Ethan would also put in time trying to get bigger, stronger and faster with his fists. It was a necessary evil for a young man looking to make a mark in hockey and fulfil his dream of becoming a National Hockey League player. The 5-11, 175-pounder was selected by the Moose Jaw Warriors in the fifth round, 90th overall, of the 2012 Western Hockey League draft.
Ethan played a few exhibition games and one regular-season tilt -- even dropping the gloves to show he wasn't afraid of the rough stuff -- and was hoping to crack the team full-time this coming fall under the watch of head coach Tim Hunter, a notorious former NHL enforcer. Hunter had even called Williams the day before he died, just to touch base about the upcoming season.
If he didn't make the Warriors, he'd likely spend another season with the AAA Winnipeg Thrashers. But it may have been a dangerous game he was playing, considering the amount of brain trauma he'd already suffered in his young life. Hits from behind, elbows to the head and yes, punches to the face, had all contributed to eight concussions since the age of 11.
His family suspects there may have been others that Ethan hid, not wanting to miss any playing time.
"He wasn't scared of pain. He would have definitely played through that," said his mother, Shannon Williams. "Everyone who knows him would say a 'Williams wouldn't stay down.' He wasn't afraid of anything. He was fearless."
His father, Chris Williams, said Ethan was always more concerned about missing out, rather than the injury he had suffered.
"He loved to play the game," he said.
The most recent concussion occurred last November, and forced Ethan to miss nearly three months of hockey.
"There had been fatigue, dizziness, nausea," said his mother. As always, Ethan's doctors eventually cleared him to return to action. His team wouldn't allow it unless he had a doctor's note.
"Of course, before he'd go back he'd have to be better. But who knows if he was just saying he was better in order to go back," his mother said. "The only thing he wanted to be was an NHL player. He'd always talk about what he was going to buy us when he signed that first contract."
-- -- --
The Williams family could see the downward spiral coming. Ethan began skipping classes at West Kildonan Collegiate last spring and he seemed darker, more distant.
So they took him to Children's Hospital in April for a mental-health assessment. He spent two days in care before he was discharged.
"They said we think he'll be OK, he's a good kid, you're a good family," said Shannon Williams. Her son was not prescribed any medication. He did have some follow-up with a therapist.
But there was something else complicating the situation, something over which the family had no control.
Ethan's father was dying.
Chris Williams was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer in late 2011, when doctors told him he was unlikely to survive more than six months. He's still here, but the 39-year-old's health is extremely fragile. He began his 33rd chemotherapy treatment this week. All of his children -- Christian, 21, Vaughn, 19, Riley, 14 and Hailey, 12 -- have been struggling with the diagnosis and uncertain future. But Ethan took it the hardest. His father was his hero, the man who'd taught him to skate, who'd been with him through so many early-morning practices and long-distance road trips.
And as his father's health worsened, so did Ethan's own outlook on life. "He cried a lot about his dad. He just wanted someone to fix him," said Shannon Williams. "He didn't want to lose his daddy."
* * *
The events of July 29 will forever be burned in their minds.
It was Ethan's younger brother, Riley, who made the horrific discovery upon the family's return home from his football practice.
Chris Williams frantically gave his son CPR while they waited for paramedics to arrive. But it was too late. He couldn't be saved.
Nobody knows exactly what happened in those final few hours. Ethan didn't leave a note behind, but he did make a final Facebook post around 7:50 p.m. that simply read "Love You All." His iPad was found next to his body.
In his last conversation with his mother earlier that day, she signed off with her usual goodbye of "See you later, alligator."
"After a while, crocodile," Ethan replied.
News of his death spread quickly through social media. Dozens of friends gathered last week at Vince Leah Community Centre to say goodbye. Counsellors were also brought in to West Kildonan Collegiate, inviting any of his peers who wanted to attend.
The Moose Jaw Warriors released a statement, expressing their condolences to the Williams family. A team representative also visited their home, dropping off Ethan's jersey along with flowers and food.
The Williams family is now trying to put on a brave front, while still dealing with Chris' perilous health situation. They say it's still too early to declare any lessons learned from this tragedy, but urged all hockey parents to watch their children closely for concussions. "I know he was hurting, but there was really no warning to this. He had the world in his hands. But he just couldn't be happy," said Shannon Williams.
"Cherish your life. Cherish your kids."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2014 A3
Updated on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at 6:15 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline
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