Despite growing up in a seemingly non-traditional hockey climate such as Port McNeill, B.C., Willie Mitchell nonetheless harboured a typical young Canadian kid's yearning to one day make it to the National Hockey League and, in his particular case, suit up and play for his boyhood favourites, the Vancouver Canucks.
That dream came true on July 1, as the Canucks signed the rugged defenceman to a four-year deal.
The journey from Port McNeill back home to British Columbia may have been a lengthy one, but for the 6-3 blueliner, it was one well worth the wait.
"I'm excited to be here," he said. "You have big dreams as a kid, and it was always a dream of mine to play for the Canucks, to be in the National Hockey League and to play against Gretzky...all those things. They're the things you think about when you're a kid playing road hockey. Of course, they're just dreams and you don't always think that they'll become reality, but when they do, it's a surreal moment."
While the town of Port McNeill may be best known as a logging area, the upper Island does have its share of minor hockey programs as well. While not generally known as a breeding ground for future NHLers, the calibre and quality of the sport is surprisingly high.
"It's actually not too bad, and the teams are tough," reported Mitchell. "There are three cities we call the North Island up there -- Port McNeil, Port Alice and Port Hardy -- and they're all about a half-hour away from each other. It's minor hockey and all the teams play against each other. Once you get into the more competitive 'rep' hockey, it's usually one team representing all the small towns up there, and you head down the Island and play in tournaments against the other teams on the Island such as Campbell River, Nanaimo, Courtenay, Victoria and then even in Vancouver. For a small town, there are quite a number of volunteers there who have put together a great hockey program."
It's been an off-season of tremendous change for the Vancouver Canucks, virtually redesigning the team from the goaltender out as they embark upon their 37th NHL season. Despite the length of Mitchell's tenure on the team, he should know only too well -- from his numerous visits here as an opponent with the Minnesota Wild - that -- for all intents and purposes -- it's pretty much a new beginning for everyone involved.
"There's been a lot of change on this team, and there are a lot of new players and new staff," said Mitchell. "Anytime you have some changeover like that, there's going to be a change in the systems of play, especially with the coaching change. On the personnel side, the guys that are left over, like Markus (Naslund) and Brendan (Morrison), I know a lot about them -- after seeing them on a regular basis, you get to know a lot about them and their tendencies as players -- but outside of knowing them as players -- and how to play against them -- I couldn't tell you a lot. That's why I got to Vancouver early, to skate with the guys and get to know them on an individual basis and personal level."
As another new addition to not only a radically altered team but also one following the guidelines of brand new leadership at the helm, there is an awful lot for a player to absorb. Certainly getting to know the new bench boss is chief among them.
"I've just had preliminary conversations with Alain (Vigneault) and just talked about his concepts and how he coaches and about the team in general," said Mitchell. "It's kind of the 'feel-out' process. I think he's going to be a guy who wants his team to play with a lot of passion and work hard, and I'm certainly okay with that. As the season moves forward here, we're going to learn a lot more about our identity and certainly our systems as a hockey team."
PASSION FOR THE SPORT
While the differences between Minneapolis, Minn., and Vancouver, B.C., may be vast and varied when it comes to the game of hockey, both cities and neighbouring environs share an undying passion for the sport. For Willie Mitchell, despite having played for a number of years in one of hockey's traditional hotbeds, he knows all too well that when it's game time, there's no place quite like Canada to ply his trade.
"Minneapolis is a passionate hockey city and the fans are certainly knowledgeable, just like up here in Vancouver," he said. "I would say the only little difference is that, in Minnesota, they've got the Big Four -- the Vikings, the Twins, the Timberwolves and the Wild -- and here it's really just the Canucks. That's the team really under the microscope in terms of Big Four sports in town. The media and fans in Vancouver are really passionate, and that's what makes this situation unique. I've said a few times to people that there would be no better thing than to win in a city like Vancouver. When you have everyone that's following the team as closely as they are and with the passion behind it, that's a great place to play."
Originally drafted in the eighth round by the New Jersey Devils in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, the 29-year-old Mitchell is no stranger to Vancouver Canucks fans having patrolled the blueline for the Minnesota Wild for the better part of the past five seasons accumulating 59 points in the process.
Known for his aggressive style of play against the Canucks, one can't help but wonder if we're in for a lot more of "that" Willie Mitchell.
He laughs, "I think I play the game with passion, and I like to think I compete; those are two things I take pride in. I like to think I match up against the top players in the game. I like the challenge that brings, and I raise the level of my game when I play against those top players. That's what I'm going to try and do with the Canucks, instead of against them. I look forward to adding perhaps a different piece to the puzzle."