Mitchell suffered the injury in the third period of a post-Christmas competition with the Calgary Flames. With Dion Phaneuf bearing down on him, Mitchell attempted to side-step a check a foot form the side boards, but buckled awkwardly, back first, into the wall. Mitchell finished the game in slight discomfort and went on to play under pain for nine games, without knowing the extent of the injury.
"When I got hit in the Calgary game, I had some acute back pain the first three days and it kind of went away," explained Mitchell. "I played with it for three weeks there and it progressively got worse.”
“The last three or four games I played, I felt I had something more than a back injury that was only muscle; in the Detroit game, there was a point where I couldn't move my legs in front of the net after I got hit.”
Such trauma caused by the injury is in fact misleading, as this type of stress fracture usually cannot be aggravated by further use or pressure. Nevertheless, to perform with this ailment is excruciating painful, but can be done with a very high pain tolerance. Mitchell, who is notorious for holding such a tolerance level, understands that in no way can this injury be season-ending or career-threatening, but also understands that there is a risk involved.
"I've played with fractures before, whether it was in my hand or a rib, but when it's your back, it's a little more serious," said Mitchell. "I think all of us play through pain in our careers, but you want to be smart about it -- not stupid."
The ambiguity of this injury yields a very flexible time frame for return, one that is both unknown to Mitchell and the coaching staff.
"There is no timeline," explains Mitchell. "It's [a matter of] reintroducing stuff and, if it responds, reintroducing more stuff that's a little more high intensity. From then on, it's just continuing to try new things and getting to where you can play the game."
Although the blue-chip defender does not offer a loose timeline for return, Coach Alain Vigneault estimates that the fracture will plague Mitchell for five weeks.
"Usually with any fracture, the doctors would say 4-6 or 6-8 weeks, but with the time he's had off now and the fact he's played with it for nine games, we're already looking at five weeks," Vigneault said. "So it shouldn't be, in my mind, much longer knowing Willie Mitchell and knowing his pain tolerance.”
As an 8-year NHL veteran, Mitchell has emerged as one of the all-around leaders on this Canuck squad. Since arriving in Vancouver for the 2006/2007 campaign, Mitchell has become a force on Vancouver’s blueline with his long reach and a fan favorite with his canny personality. The 6’3” Port McNeill native was brought in with the expectation of providing some experience and leadership, and he has since then applied even greater pressure upon himself to do so.
"This time of year is an important time of the year, and I like to think that I am a guy on the team that can lead and help the team down the stretch. [In that situation] that's when I feel I play my best hockey; and that for me is probably the most disappointing thing with this, but we'll get there soon," said Mitchell.
With Vancouver in a battle for a playoff spot, the Canuck organization and its fans will be pushing for Mitchell’s quick return. While Willie will be just as eager to get back into the line-up, it is essential to treat this injury with its required care so when he does return it’s for good, and he will be that much more effective in contributing to the team's playoff run.