Willie Mitchell Completes 'Journey' Back to NHL After Career-Threatening Hit
Mitchell culminated a comeback from post-concussion syndrome by playing his first NHL regular-season game for the Los Angeles Kings against his old team, the Vancouver Canucks, as they opened the 2010-11 campaign at Rogers Arena.
"It's kind of ironic, my first game back .. my old team and teammates in a city that was home for me," a smiling Mitchell, 33, said after the game-day skate. "But that's kind of nice too because a lot of those people and friends were there for me throughout the journey."
Mitchell was injured in Pittsburgh in January as Penguins star Evgeni Malkin crunched him into the end boards. The league chose not to discipline Malkin for what Mitchell claimed was a check from behind. The Port McNeill, B.C., native's season -- and his tenure with the Canucks -- immediately ended.
Mitchell then spent the next seven months trying to rescue his career, missing the annual July 1 opening of free agency because he was not able to begin hard on-ice and off-ice workouts until the middle of that month. But, after proving himself healthy, he signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Kings in late August.
"It wasn't necessarily the normal path for a player, I guess, but free agency starts on July 1," said Mitchell. "And then my (test results) might have closed a few doors. But I knew if I did things the right way teams would be there in the end. Sure enough, I was right. It's been a good relationship so far."
Especially with budding superstar Drew Doughty, a Norris Trophy candidate last season at the age of 20. Although Kings coach Terry Murray believes most of Doughty's ability is natural, the bench boss is counting on Mitchell to help the youngster elevate his game.
"Willie Mitchell's a real good add to our hockey player, you know, a veteran player, defensive defenceman who adds to the offensive part of the game," said Murray. "I think he's going to be a stabilizing force to keep pushing and helping Drew Doughty to the next level of play.
"He's got plenty of experience and physical, hard, gritty play and brings a nice energy to the locker room. He's always got a smile on his face. He brings a little bit of relief, I think, into the locker room on those practice days and gets everybody ready with his personality."
Doughty formed an effective partnership with veteran Rob Scuderi late last season. But after watching Jack Johnson, a left-handed shot, play the right side for the U.S. team during the Olympics, Murray decided to switch him to Scuderi's right. As a result, Mitchell and Doughty wound up together.
Doughty said he and the rest of the club are trying to learn from Mitchell's gritty play and experience.
"We actually have the same personalities on and off the ice," said Doughty. "We like to have a lot of fun. At the same time, we always take hockey quite seriously. ... Building that chemistry off the ice has really helped on the ice as well."
Noting that the duo only played three exhibition games together, Mitchell said the relationship will get better over time. On the ice, however, the two are opposites. Mitchell is a stay-at-home defenceman who rarely scores while Doughty is gifted offensively as well as defensively.
"You guys know me," said Mitchell, who spent four seasons as a Canuck. "I like to have fun. I like to smile. I like to enjoy the game. It's a great game, but I compete hard, too. I think he's the exact same way as that. He's always smiling, always having a good time, he always wants to do well and he's really passionate about anything. That makes him a great player."
Now, Murray wants Mitchell and other veterans to help the Kings become a great team after they were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Canucks last season. With a plethora of young talent, the Kings have developed high expectations. Murray believes they fit the mold of the Pittsburgh Penguins and other clubs that have become contenders after building patiently through the draft.
But they still have to prove that they can pass the test of meeting the greater expectations.
"I don't want to hide it," said Murray. "When you do have success like we did last year -- a huge jump as far as the team -- you have to learn how to deal with that success. That's the challenge that you have. Again, I rely heavily on the veterans that are in the locker room. They are a solid group of guys and they are just going to have to settle things at the right time, say the right stuff on the bench carry the message from the coaching staff that this is the way that we need to do it.
"You're going to have some bumps along the road -- there's no question about that -- but one of the MOs that I really feel that we've developed as a hockey club is to be a gritty team, meaning that you can bounce back from adversity. You're going to get knocked down. You're going to have some failures along the way, but dealing with it, maturing heavily and handling it is what it's all about."
And when it comes to dealing with adversity, Willie Mitchell will have plenty of stories to tell.