It was June 22, 1996. Willie Mitchell, who was 19 years old at the time, was in the middle of a shower at his grandmother’s house, having just completed hockey camp for the day.
Earlier, Mitchell had received a call from his parents, who phoned just to tease that they hadn’t seen him get picked in either of the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft on television.
“They were totally joking around because there was no clue that I’d ever get drafted,” explains Mitchell, who was not rated to be drafted. In fact he was a self-proclaimed “not very good,” bottom-two defenseman for a Tier II hockey team at the time.
Mitchell’s grandmother, of Italian and Croatian decent who had lived in Croatia before immigrating to North America, called out to her grandson. This started a scene that Mitchell describes as going somewhat like the following:
Grandma: “Vilhem! Vilhem!” (Insert Mitchell’s Italian accent imitation here) “There’s someone on the phone for you!”
Mitchell: “Grandma, can it wait? I’m in the shower!”
Grandma: “No, I think this one’s important!”
Mitchell: “Alright, give me the phone.”
Man on the Phone: “Hi Willie, this is Les Widdifield of the New Jersey Devils, you’ve just been drafted in the NHL Entry Draft.”
Mitchell: “(Bleep) off!”
Man on the Phone: “No, this is Les Widdifield, you’ve just been drafted in the eighth round, 199th overall…”
To this day, Mitchell remembers the scout’s name that broke him the news, the one he thought was originally a buddy of his, messing around with him because there was no indication that he would ever be drafted.
“I just remember after I hung up the phone, I started crying and my eyes were welling up,” recalls the Port McNeill, B.C. native.
Mitchell’s sister, who was en-pointe enough to give Widdifield the number for Mitchell’s grandmother’s house when he called the Mitchell home in his first attempt to find the defenseman, was the one to deliver the news to Mitchell’s father.
“He’s walking up the driveway – we have a really steep driveway because we live in the mountains – and my sister comes running out of the house yelling ‘guess what? Guess what? Will just got drafted into the NHL!’ and he almost passed out, he had to put his hand on the car just to hold himself up,” says Mitchell, laughing.
“A lot of the guys in our (locker) room were probably rated to go high and they know they’re getting drafted and it’s just a matter of where,” Mitchell says. “I just feel so fortunate that I had that opportunity to go the other way where I had no clue and it was like a big surprise.”
As surprising as it must have been for Mitchell to be drafted, imagine this: almost exactly 16 years later, not only is Mitchell no longer a bottom-two defenseman, but he’s a Stanley Cup Champion.
Hopefully Dad wasn’t walking up the driveway for that one either.