While plying his trade for the Riverains at College Charles-Lemoyne in Sainte-Catherine during the 2001-02 campaign, Mitchell began to realize his potential, particularly in the latter stages of the regular season and on into postseason play. That ultimately set the table for the Greenfield Park native to head south of the border to begin shaping his path towards the NHL ranks.
“Torrey always played on one of our top two lines, but with the way he exploded at the end of the year, scouts really took notice of him. They thought he could go in the first round of the QMJHL Draft. But, his dad, Steve, said he was headed to prep school in the U.S. If he didn’t go to the Hotchkiss School [in Connecticut], he would have been a first-round pick,” offered former Riverains head coach, Martin Russell, who now helms the women’s squad at Cegep Edouard-Montpetit. “If I remember right, I think he scored 15 goals all regular season long and then added 13 more goals in the playoffs alone. His strength was always his skating. Not only could he score goals, but he was smart with the puck, too. He was good at both ends of the ice and very strong on the penalty kill. Everyone following Junior hockey in Quebec was impressed by it.”
Russell was among Mitchell’s biggest fans in La Belle Province that season, citing his former charge’s relentless work ethic, infectious energy and competitive spirit as the characteristics that still stand out today. Mitchell wasn’t the tallest or most powerful member of the Riverains that year, but that didn’t stop him from doing everything he conceivably could to hone his game for the most critical time of the season. It was a year-long process that, according to Russell, spoke volumes about Mitchell’s desire to succeed.
“The year before joining us, when he was in Bantam AA, Torrey was very small. When he came on board, he was probably 5’9”. He probably reached 5’10” or 5’11” during the year. He really grew that year and worked on building himself up to get a lot stronger,” shared Russell, who recalls Mitchell getting off to a slower-than-expected start with the Riverains, particularly in the goal-scoring department, before finally closing out the campaign on a high note with 56 points in 41 games to finish 12th in the league in scoring. “I remember him at practice. He’d shoot and miss by two or three inches again and again. Little by little, though, he started figuring things out. He just kept at it, trying, trying and trying again. He ended up adjusting the speed and height of his shot. Then, he broke out, going top-shelf and finding the corners all the time. What wasn’t going in before Christmas was suddenly going in. I don’t know how it happened. I can’t explain it, but it really changed his game.”
And, it ultimately helped to pace the Riverains to a remarkable campaign, one that culminated not only in a Quebec Midget AAA title, but in a bronze medal at the Air Canada Cup in Bathurst, NB. It was there that Mitchell really did make an emphatic statement to the hockey world about his character, and what type of player he was going to become down the line.
“I remember heading into that game, Torrey had a bad groin injury and he couldn’t play. Neither could another guy, Matthew McIntyre. We still had them in the lineup, though. At the end of the first period, there was a brawl and I think eight guys got kicked out of the game. At that point, Torrey came to see me and said he wanted to go out there,” recalled Russell, reminiscing about the Riverains’ 6-4 victory over the Red Deer Chiefs. “His parents had left the rink by then. They thought he wasn’t going to play. He finally got out there and scored right away. Then, he picked up an assist on the game-winner and added the insurance goal. At the time, I was surprised about it all, but looking back I shouldn’t have been. I’d never seen something like that before, a guy being injured like that and wanting to play that badly. You rarely see guys who are willing to play at any cost.”
That’s just who Mitchell is, according to his former bench boss, who has always respected the way in which the Canadiens’ No. 17 has gone about his business in order to succeed at every level.
“From start to finish, Torrey has always been a worker and he’s always been a team guy. He always did what was asked of him. That made him stand out from the crowd,” confided Russell, who also boasts the likes of Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and current Riverains head coach Guillaume Latendresse as former pupils who’ve donned the bleu-blanc-rouge over the years. “He definitely brings a good atmosphere into the locker room. He keeps things light. But, when it was time to compete, Torrey was ready to play. When it was time to work and win, you could count on him. I could tell you that he didn’t enjoy losing. He picked his spots to have fun, but not after a loss.”
Fortunately, the Riverains rarely came out on the wrong side of the scoresheet that year. Mitchell even secured a league All-Star selection and playoff MVP honours after pacing the Quebec Midget AAA ranks in postseason scoring with 13 goals – including three game-winners – and 27 points in 19 games. It was certainly a season to remember for the Selwyn House grad, who still fondly recalls his time under Russell’s watch.
“I’ll always remember Martin for being really demanding. He was hard on the players. He focused on all the little details of hockey that you really don’t generally know about when you’re starting out. And, we had a really good team. We were very close,” mentioned Mitchell, who went on to play two seasons at Hotchkiss before joining the University of Vermont for three years prior to making the jump to the NHL with San Jose in 2007-08. “Playing in the playoffs in that tiny little rink in Sainte-Catherine. People packed this small little barn every night. I’ll never forget that whole playoff run. We were sold out every time. It was cool and a lot of fun.”
Needless to say, Russell couldn’t be prouder to see Mitchell enjoying life in Montreal these days, taking to the ice for his hometown team on hockey’s biggest stage.
“I’m very proud that Torrey remembers what I taught him. He made it because he’s a devoted and caring athlete who focuses on learning things all the time. It’s a credit to him to have been able to take what I taught him and bring it to a higher level,” concluded Russell. “When he was traded to the Canadiens at the trade deadline in March, I was really happy about it, especially for him and his family. San Jose was far. Minnesota and Buffalo were, too. It’s nice to be able to see him play at home in a Canadiens uniform.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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