NEWARK, N.J. -- Willie Mitchell's name is nowhere to be found on the Stanley Cup, but as a rookie with the New Jersey Devils in 2000, he had a chance to celebrate a championship with his teammates at the time.
Instead, Mitchell decided against it.
The Devils beat the Dallas Stars in six games to win their second Cup in five years, and while Mitchell was part of the run, he really wasn't. Mitchell was a black ace -- a healthy scratch -- for all 23 playoff games and played just two regular-season games.
Mitchell wasn't eligible to have his named etched into the most-prized trophy in all of sports, but GM Lou Lamoriello offered him an opportunity to take part in the victory parade days after Jason Arnott's double-overtime goal in Dallas knocked out the Stars.
Along with the other black aces that never touched the ice, Mitchell declined the offer to revel in an accomplishment he felt had nothing to do with him. He never spent a day with the Cup and has never placed his hands on it.
Scott Stevens) was on his off-day or maintenance day. So never around it, nothing like that.
"The following year I was supposed to make the team and be the only rookie on the team. I was here -- well, at the Meadowlands -- for the first game of the season with the banner going to the roof. Yeah, it was pretty cool. It was something at the time I thought might happen sooner than it does to get that chance."
Twelve years later, the 35-year-old Mitchell is getting that chance with the Los Angeles Kings, playing against the team that drafted him as an 18-year-old in 1996.
Mitchell arrived in New Jersey at the best and worst possible time for a young defenseman. At 22, he found himself behind future Hall-of-Famers Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, veterans Ken Daneyko and Lyle Odelein and budding blueliners Brian Rafalski and Sheldon Souray. Playing time for Mitchell was hard to find, and the Devils eventually traded him to the Minnesota Wild in March 2001 for veteran Sean O'Donnell.
After just 18 games, Mitchell's career in New Jersey was over, but the lessons he learned from being around such a tremendous core of defensemen stayed with him.
"(Daneyko) and Scotty were probably the biggest things," Mitchell said. "I remember I thought I was in pretty good shape, then I saw guys like that who were closer to my age now and really fit, really prepared, intense guys, and when it was game day, it was game day. Guys like that, even though it was a short time, you're around them and you learn how you should handle yourself and how much it takes to prepare to win."
Even with that trade to the Wild that allowed Mitchell to hone his craft as a defensive defenseman, he couldn't escape the influence of New Jersey. Mitchell played under coach Jacques Lemaire, who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995. Despite the trade, Mitchell's Devils-based education continued in Minnesota.
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"It ended up being a good situation for me," Mitchell said. "I went to Minnesota and played a lot under -- go figure -- another Devil, Jacques Lemaire, and learned so much from him as well. I owe the Devils as far as my development as a player."
Mitchell received his best chance at a Cup in 2003 when the Wild reached the conference finals before being knocked out by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who, almost fittingly, lost in the Final to the Devils. Mitchell made a brief stop in Dallas in 2006 and spent four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, but the frustration of not getting a sniff at a championship was compounded by concussion problems.
Mitchell's worst concussion happened at the end of the 2009-10 season, costing him 34 regular-season games and the Canucks' entire playoff run that ended in the second round. Not only could he not participate in the playoffs, but he couldn't watch the Cup Final, either.
"There were a couple of years when I was questioning my hockey career because I had a long injury," said Mitchell, who also missed an extended stretch in 2008 with a back injury. "I wasn’t watching then. The added stress with going through an injury like that wasn’t good for the brain.
"When the season ends, I tend to get lost, go fishing, but I tend to pick it up in the Stanley Cup Final. Watching whoever it is hoist that big mug over their head is probably the most motivating thing you can watch as a professional hockey player.”
Patience, persistence and good health have resulted in Mitchell being three wins away from that elusive championship this season with the Kings. In 76 games, the Port Mcneill, B.C., native posted career-best totals in goals (five), assists (19), points (24), and plus/minus (plus-20). After logging 22:13 of ice time per game in the regular season, he's been on the ice for 25:34 per game in the postseason.
Right or wrong, Mitchell felt like he didn't belong with his overjoyed Devils teammates when they raised the Cup 12 years ago, but he is now close to possibly lifting it over his head against the team that gave him his start, his foundation and his chance to play in the NHL.
"I was drafted in the eighth round, 199th, out of Tier 2 juniors," said Mitchell, referring to his time with the Kelowna Spartans of the British Columbia Hockey League and the Melfort Mustangs of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. "How often does that happen? I like to think they had a good scout. I obviously owe him a ton, because he gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door. After that, I just worked hard to get here. I feel so fortunate just to get here with the type of game I play -- a stay-at-home defensive defenseman. I take a lot of pride in playing against the top players and slowing them down as much as possible.
"I was pretty lucky to be around an organization as a young defenseman trying to find his way. I tried to be a sponge and listen to those guys as much as possible. I owe them a lot for being in the situation I am now."
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