There was an odd silence that came over the hordes of media gathered in the Vancouver Canucks dressing room on locker cleanout day as all eyes and ears gave their full attention to a player no one expected to hear from.
Willie Mitchell addressed the cameras and recorders for the first time since he was slammed into the end boards by Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin late in a 6-2 Canucks win over the Penguins at GM Place January 16th.
Initially “day-to-day with an upper-body injury,” Mitchell ended up missing the remainder of the 2009-10 season, including the team’s playoff run to the Western Conference Semi-Final, because of a concussion suffered on the Malkin hit, which received no suspension.
Mitchell, who had originally planned to talk to the media upon recovering his health, waited until Thursday to speak in fear of becoming a distraction to the team. With how candid Mitchell was about the hit in question, he was justified in waiting.
“I’m not happy with the hit I took,” he said. “We’re taught from a young age not to hit from behind and I had my numbers facing a player in a dangerous zone in a dangerous spot and he hit me.”
The soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent didn’t stop at taking aim at Malkin, he also voiced his displeasure with the NHL and Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, the league’s principal disciplinarian.
“I’m disappointed that he didn’t rule down anything on the play, that’s his job. As we’ve seen, it’s been very inconsistent with how he’s handled himself in those situations. I think a lot of the times he hands down suspensions and fines on result and I totally think that’s the wrong thing to do.
“If you rob a bank and there’s 50 million dollars in there, you rob a bank and there’s five bucks in there, you’re going to jail for the same amount of time. He saw me get up off the ice so he didn’t make any ruling on it.”
Mitchell made it clear that there’s nothing that can be done for him, he was more concerned with others avoiding the same fate he’s been forced to endure for the past 16 and a half weeks.
Torturous at best helps frame Mitchell’s physical, emotional and psychological state since the hit. Forced into a fostered, stress-free environment, unable to even watch TV, Mitchell took it one step at a time to get where he is today.
“In the first stage of my recovery I couldn’t even watch games, just because of the whole emotional aspect of a concussion injury. It’s not like you hurt a knee and you just feel pain, you’ve injured your brain so it’s not only the pain of the injury, it’s the emotional pain as well.”
That went as far as avoiding light, which Mitchell said he’s now able to deal with when a reporter questioned whether the spotlights from the cameras were too intense.
“That was a stage absolutely, it was lights, it was sounds, absolutely everything, I couldn’t watch TV, all that stuff.”
Mitchell is now the victim of light headaches and head pressure, typical post-concussion syndromes, and he is optimistic that he'll be symptom-free soon. He emphasized sticking to and trusting the recovery process, one that he’s been loyal to since day one.
“I just want to be healthy. I will be. I’m doing all the right things to get healthy and I’m just worried about that process. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the last 18 weeks and I’m sure I’ll have some more, but that’s good, the fact that you have challenging times ahead means that you’re improving.
The strain of the playoffs can be unmanageable for the players competing and Mitchell admitted to being surprised by how difficult it was to have to take a step back from the game, especially since, to the raised eye-brows of everyone in the scrum, he believed he could have returned possibly as soon as next round.
“I’m disappointed that the season has ended because where I am in progression, I think I had a real shot at playing and helping this team out if we got past this round. The other side of me, to be really bluntly honest, it’s almost a relief because of all the emotional strain on your brain and that’s the last thing I need right now.
“This time of year, as an athlete, you want to be in there in the pressure situation, you want everything this time of year has to offer and play against a team that we had lost to last year and seeing the team, seeing some of the things that didn’t go according to plan were kind of areas that I felt I could have helped out a lot.”
While the Canucks and their banged up defence would have welcomed back its heart and soul with open arms, Mitchell’s situation puts what’s important in focus. He would love to return to Vancouver next year, but first he needs to return to being Willie.
“Number one for me is getting healthy. You can’t sit there and think about beating the Chicago Blackhawks or winning the Stanley Cup, what you have to think about is your process and if you lose track of your process, you set yourself up for failure.
“I have a process and my process is doing things that I feel are helping me get better, which I have been absolutely and continue to be in the right mindset that a lot of encouraging things are happening to me. I’m just really worried about that right now.”