Mike Williamson remembers how difficult it was just to get out of bed each morning, his back aching incredibly.
“I kind of looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for a little bit,” he said. “Just kind of hunched over, not super comfortable all the time.”
Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky knew his defenseman was hurting; he just didn’t know how bad it was. It wasn’t until later that Williamson’s roommates spilled the beans about how tough it was for him to get out of bed.
By early in the second semester of his junior season, Williamson knew he had hit his limit.
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The 6-foot-4, 206-pound Williamson said goodbye to the game of hockey as a player last year, and was added to the staff as a student assistant coach. Because of that move, he is grateful he can still be a part of this historic season for the Nittany Lions, collecting 24 wins, winning the Big Ten tournament title and earning their first berth in the NCAA tournament.
Penn State faces Union in the first round at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
“Obviously I’d like to still be playing, but it’s been an unbelievable experience for me,” said the senior, who collected three goals and six assists in 49 games.
Williamson was one of those early recruits who committed to a program before it was even off the ground. His first season was Penn State’s second at the Division I level and the first in Pegula Ice Arena. He came with quite the resume, as a sixth-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks, joining goalie Eamon McAdam as the first two draft picks in the program’s history.
The defenseman played well as a freshman, missing only seven games. He scored a pair of power-play goals, with the first of his career a game-winner against Robert Morris.
The aches and pains began to build as a sophomore, when he missed 22 games.
As a junior he made it into just six games early in the year, struggling to get out of bed or off the couch each day. He knew so much more was at stake than just his NHL dreams.
“It was a tough decision to make,” he said. “It was to the point I had to consider my personal health for the rest of my life, so I thought obviously it’s a choice that had to happen.”
It was to the point I had to consider my personal health for the rest of my life, so I thought obviously it’s a choice that had to happen.
Former Penn State defenseman and current student assistant coach Mike Williamson
He talked it over with Gadowsky, and the health and human movement major found his spot on the staff. Then he had to tell his teammates and friends.
“He asked us if he could continue on in the position that he is now,” classmate and fellow defenseman David Thompson said. “Obviously it wasn’t even a question for us. There was no hesitation to make sure he was still in that room, still around us at all time.”
Now a senior, he’s part of practices each day, charting the goalie stats and running the netminders through drills. Gadowsky considers Williamson a major asset.
“We wouldn’t just take anybody and make them an assistant coach,” Gadowsky said. “With him, he’s such a good guy. He’s always been a great guy.”
The Nittany Lions, however, had to get used to Williamson in a position of authority.
“(It) kind of depends on the situation,” Williamson said. “I don’t think I have too much, too many times where I need to be super serious. It makes it easy on me. I don’t get put in too many situations where I need to crack the whip, because I’m not sure that I could.”
When Penn State celebrated its seniors on March 4 for a game against Wisconsin, Williamson got to walk back onto the ice with his teammates and wave to the crowd. Introduced just before captain David Goodwin, he got to hear the cheers for his name one last time, and even though he didn’t have any family making the trip from his home near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he still felt part of the team.
He said it would have been much tougher if he had to give up the game completely. Instead he has an important role for a very special season.
“We’re still kind of taking it all in,” Williamson said. “I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be here at this point in our NCAA history. … It’s blown us all away.”