By Jeff Paterson
Listen to the talk shows and you still hear the phone calls. Five months into the season and eight months after the Canucks signed Willie Mitchell to a four-year $14 million dollar contract, you still hear people questioning his value to the hockey club.
The doubters wonder exactly what the Canucks are getting from a guy who's making $3.5 million this season while scoring just one goal, setting up three others and sitting at -8 . While the uninformed look to Mitchell's offensive statistics and somehow think he's been a disappointment in his first year with the Canucks, his teammates know otherwise.
Inside the locker room where salaries don't matter but opinions do, ask Mitchell's comrades about his worth to the hockey club. It doesn't take long to realize that in his first year with the Canucks, Mitchell is having a huge impact on the leadership group of this hockey club that's battling for top spot in the competitive Northwest Division.
"I can't say enough about him and what he's brought to us. He's a quality guy. Bringing him and Roberto in has absolutely transformed this dressing room and he's a big part of it," says Trevor Linden. "I've been in this situation when you go into a new team, it's kind of tough, you can't just walk in, you have to feel your way a little bit and he's been awesome in a number of ways."
Perhaps the best indication of Willie Mitchell's presence in the locker room is underscored by the fact the Canucks are 23-13-1 with number 8 in uniform while they've won just six of the 15 (6-6-3) games he's missed with concussion and groin problems this season.
"He's one of the voices you hear a lot in the dressing room There's only certain guys that can do that without it being too much and we have a few guys in our room who talk most of the time before games and practice and get us going and he's right at the front," says Kevin Bieksa
of his blueline partner and mentor. "He's just a guy you respect and when he says something you listen to him. And he goes out and he'll do it on the ice, whatever he says, he'll be the first guy to do it and lead by example and he's been huge for us in the dressing room."
Bieksa has flourished since being paired with Mitchell in early December. They form the Canucks top defensive duo and have been given the responsibility of shutting down opponents' best forwards -- and more often than not they've won that battle.
The best players in the game are going to score goals which is one of the reasons Willie Mitchell's plus/minus isn't where he wants it to be. But if he limits the likes of Jarome Iginla, Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic to just one goal or a one point, the Canucks stand a pretty good chance of winning those hockey games.
And that's not lost on his team-mates.
"He's a great guy to have around. He's someone who comes to the rink excited every day, he works extremely hard and he might be the biggest reason our PK is the best in the league. If you watch him out there, he does a lot of things that don't show up on the stats sheet," says captain Markus Naslund who has welcomed Mitchell's leadership in the locker room with open arms. "He's a likeable guy, but on the other hand he's a guy who loves to compete and loves to win, too. He's still got an edge. He's definitely one of the veteran guys and says the right things in the locker room and I like having him around."
And that clearly seems to be the consensus among Mitchell's team-mates. Whether it's a practice or a game day skate, Mitchell's always in the middle of things. And more often than not he's trading good-natured barbs with several team-mates at the same time.
"He's got a real good personality. He's really outgoing, he's constantly in the mix, joking around with guys, ribbing guys and he gets it back," says Brendan Morrison. "People that talk about him and his stats, in my opinion don't have a clue. We got him for our PK and our PK is number one in the league right now. We got him to help our goals against and our goals against is down. We got him to play against the other teams top lines and he's doing his job. You know, I'd be surprised if he ever scored more than five goals in a season because he's not that kind of player."
That may still be difficult for some fans to understand. But it's perfectly clear in the Canucks locker room just what kind of player Willie Mitchell is. And to a man, his team-mates feel he's exactly the type of player the team needs to be successful.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org