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Back On Familiar Ground

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

By Josh Plummer

Dave Nonis knew exactly what he was getting when he signed free-agent defenseman Willie Mitchell this summer.

Vancouver fans know it too.

It's never fun bringing up old wounds, but the Vancouver faithful don't have to look any further than the 2002/03 playoffs.

The Canucks hosted the upstart Minnesota Wild and got a first-hand taste of what Willie Mitchell's all about.

Up three games to one, the Canucks were on the brink of the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1994.

Playing with a badly broken jaw, an wrist he injured in game four, and outweighed by more than 40 pounds, Mitchell's fearless play against power forward Todd Bertuzzi was nothing short of inspirational.

The Wild clawed their way back to tie the series, and after falling behind 2-0 in game 7, Mitchell stepped up and delivered a passionate speech between periods.

Whatever he said, it worked.

The battered Wild rebounded to win game seven 4-2 eliminating the Canucks.

"It's no different than anyone else at that time of year," says the humble Mitchell.

It's that character that made Mitchell a hot commodity at last year's trade deadline when the Wild put Mitchell, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at seasons end, on the trade market.

There were plenty of offers on the table, but the Dallas Stars topped the bidding for the 6'3", 205-pound defenseman by sending Martin Skoula and Shawn Belle to the Wild in exchange for Mitchell.

Handcuffed by the cap, the Stars allowed Mitchell - who earned $1 million during the 2005/06 season - to hit the free-agent pool July 1st.

The Vancouver Canucks have had the Port McNeill, B.C., native on their radar screen for quite some time and wasted no time making a pitch.

"The whole free-agent thing is kind of a whirlwind," said Mitchell.

"I didn't know how it would transpire and the next thing you know, you're sitting down in Yaletown and having a coffee with Dave Nonis. An hour or two later, you're a Canuck."

It's taken Willie Mitchell ten years of professional hockey to return home to B.C..

Drafted with the 199th overall pick by the New Jersey Devils in 1996, Mitchell played three of his first four seasons with the AHL affiliate Albany River Rat's.

New Jersey then traded the blue-liner to Minnesota for defenseman Sean O'Donnell in 2001 and it was in Minnesota under the guidance of Coach Jacques Lemaire that Mitchell perfected his defensive craft.

But he wasn't always a defenseman.

As a 15-year-old on Vancouver Island, Mitchell played forward and harboured aspirations of following in the footsteps of childhood hero Cam Neely.

His peewee and bantam teams, the North Island Eagles won back-to-back double-A Provincial titles, but the following year, Mitchell made the switch to defense. Thankfully for the Canuck, he neved waffled and is now one of the premier shut down defenders in the NHL.

'Truth be told, I took a lot of figure skating when I was a kid and my sister (Chantal) took it, too,' said Mitchell. 'I never did the drills or the figure-8s, but I was always a good backwards skater and that's why I switched over.'

To say the switch was a wise move is an understatement.

Mitchell's defense-first attitude has earned him respect throughout the NHL and his gritty approach should fit in perfectly with the philosophy of the 2006/07 Vancouver Canucks.

"We need to be better in certain areas and most of those areas are in our own end," said GM Dave Nonis.

"We'll play a more responsible style, but that doesn't mean we're going to trap."

It doesn't get any more responsible than Mitchell. His style of play is like a defenseman on a foosball table: reliable and always in position.

For Canucks fans all over B.C. and the globe, the sight of Mitchell, this time punishing the opposition and lifting his Canucks teammates to loftier heights will be a welcome relief.

And what does Mitchell hope to achieve for the hometown Vancouver Canucks fans?

"There's one goal on the sheet for me and that's the big silver guy."

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