Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mitchell's Journey's Bring Him Back Home Again

By Larry Wigge

They say you can't come home again.

But Willie Mitchell, a 33-year-old veteran, came home in a big way on the first night of the playoffs -- scoring on a high, rising shot past goalie Roberto Luongo in the first night of the 2012 NHL playoffs to help lead the Los Angeles Kings to a 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. 

The 6-3, 212-pound defenseman from nearby Port McNeill, B.C., made it all the way back to Vancouver with a smile on his face and a new assignment on his 11-season NHL resume.

"I'm a power-play point man," said Mitchell, with a laugh.

The giddy defenseman had previously connected for two goals in 50 playoff games. But Mitchell had one goal and four assists in his last three games.

Shortly after Darryl Sutter took over as coach of the Kings for Terry Murray in mid-December, he made a rare, whacky decision -- he would take Mitchell and put him on the power play.

"I didn't like the stereotype to be honest," he said. "I didn't like to be thought of as just a defensive player. I wanted to add to that without sacrificing and I've been able to do that by shooting more. Hopefully I can keep doing that."

"Willie's always had a heavy slap shot," Sutter added. "I just thought his shot would be difficult to handle, coming through traffic. Bodies in the lanes."

Still ... there is a stereotype. 

Mitchell has been the big, rugged defensive defenseman. To him, matchups, one-on-one battles, shut-down defensive assignments. These are all a source of the hand-to-hand drama we see every night that makes the playoffs a can't-miss form of entertainment. And the tenacity and passion and excitement only gets better in every round.

Willie power-play role had been added to his commonplace assignment. But it didn't get in the way of his plus-20 plus-minus rating.

"Give Willie Mitchell a tough assignment and he'll treat it like life and death," Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault said. "We have seen his focus and tenacity increase every game."

"Willie puts every ounce of effort into shutting down an opponent," Luongo said. "He takes every tough assignment personally."

Mitchell was big and strong, but considered a plodder on skates when the New Jersey Devils picked him in the eighth round, 199th overall, of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft. He was a long-shot at best. But his dogged tenacity, plus a few sound defensive tips along the way have made him into a hungry shutdown defenseman.

"It's amazing how great defensemen like Larry Robinson and Slava Fetisov think the game through and then react when a tough situation arises," Mitchell told me. "I remember being on the ice and on the plane talking defense with Larry and Slava when I was in New Jersey and with Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota.

"There are parameters within a defensive system like the ones I’ve played in at New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas and now Vancouver, but there is always room for creativity to react and make a play one-on-one that could be crucial in difficult situations."

Mitchell recalls learning tons about how to play within the system and when to use the physical God-given skills he's always had. It's not unlike an in-your-face middle linebacker in football who wants to take the head off a running back or receiver on every play ... but knows he has to play in control for the best interests of the team.

It's been a long and winding road from the Melfort Mustangs of the Tier II Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where Mitchell once had 56 points in 64 games to Clarkson College, where he watched the leadership of best friend Erik Cole to Albany of the American Hockey League, then New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver.

It was at Melfort where Mitchell went from winger to defense, when his coach was short of help on the back line.

"I took figure skating as a kid, so I was a decent backward skater," Willie said, with a smile.

The switch might have been a disappointment for a kid who idolized a Canucks draft pick like power forward Cam Neely and the ultra-competitive Jeremy Roenick. But today Mitchell probably owes that coach a thank you. 

But the quick-thinking Lemaire has a habit of turning good defense into a positive with an offensive twist -- once telling me that defensive center Wes Walz was like a 50-goal scorer (he’d get 15 and stop 35 more). He probably sold Mitchell on the same philosophy.

"Maybe your right," Mitchell said. "All I know is I know I don't have a shot like Al MacInnis, skating ability like Scott Niedermayer or the overall skills of a Scott Stevens, but my attitude is that if I can shut down the other team's great offensive players, I count that as being a 30-goal scorer -- because if you're shutting them down from scoring goals it's just as good as scoring."

While there’s a tremendous cast of stars like Robinson, Fetisov, Niedermayer and Stevens from his New Jersey days and Lemaire with the Devils and the Wild, his first love of hockey came from a pretty good gene pool.

"I got my desire and determination from my grandfather, Les, who played for years in the West Coast Hockey League and got a tryout with the New York Rangers back in the Original 6 days of the NHL," Mitchell said with a smile. "He was my inspiration. Still is. He's 80 years old and still skates a couple times a week."

Mitchell's dad, Reid (who is a mechanic) and four brothers all played junior hockey. He had his chance to skate for Vancouver ... but he is two years removed for that dream.

But Mitchell isn't all hockey all of the time. This is a hard-working kid whose first job was in a logging camp near his British Columbia home. He still spends his leisure time on the lake, where he loves to fish for salmon, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking and camping. He once caught a 50-pound salmon at Rivers Inlet, B.C.

"During the season, the pace is fast going from city to city," said Mitchell. "In the offseason, I like to be able to go out and fish in the middle of nowhere and get a chance to get away from the game and just have everything be quiet."

You get the idea that Willie Mitchell is a rather interesting and complex individual who continues to evolve even as a power-play point man or whatever his role might be in this his 11th season in the NHL.

See ... coming home does have it's advantages.

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