Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell may be the oldest player on his team’s roster, but he is still a kid at heart.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Willie that as a kid, his mom, Nadija, gave him a salmon sandwich every day for lunch on his way to play hockey. Today, Willie is a big advocate for closed containment salmon farms in his home province of British Columbia.
Those who are familiar with Willie’s ‘foodie’ habits and affinity for fine cuisine shouldn’t be shocked to hear that when Willie was a small child, he literally stopped in the middle of a hockey game to ask his older sister, Chantelle, for some of the French fries she was eating at the time.
On the ice, it’s no secret that Willie isn’t the fleetest afoot, doesn’t have the fanciest moves, and will probably never be featured in a SportsCenter Top 10 play. But he’s one of the best in the business at what he does and always finds a way to get his job done, which says a lot, considering he’s normally defending against opponents who do possess the list of aforementioned traits.
According to Nadija, this is the way it’s always been.
Willie was born and raised in Port McNeill, British Columbia, a small town with a population of 1800. At the age of three he began skating, which was one of the only activities available at the time.
“He had a lot of energy, so we thought we better put him in something,” recalls Nadija.
Organized hockey came about a year later, and Willie’s determination was evident, even in the ‘Peanuts’ division.
“He had the desire for that puck right away,” Nadija remembers. “When he was just learning how to skate, he’d be out there with better skaters, but he managed to get to that puck before the rest of them.”
One of Nadija’s favorite memories about Willie’s childhood hockey days was the first time he got called for a penalty, and he refused to sit in the penalty box.
“He was just mortified. I don’t know if it was because some of the older boys were running the clocks, or whatever, but he was just mortified,” tells Nadija, who never did quite figure out exactly the reason for Willie’s fear.
A forward until he switched to defense in his early teens, Willie left home at 15 to play high school hockey in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Although he, like many others, hoped to play in the NHL one day, his entire family, himself included, was realistic about his chances.
When asked at what point they realized Willie could have an NHL future, there was no hesitation in Nadija’s answer.
“We didn’t,” she replies, nonchalantly.
Nadija and her husband, Reid, always let their son make his own decisions regarding hockey, and their approach yielded favorable results.
“He always made the right decisions. He played it safe – he got asked to play major junior, but he thought ‘well, what if I don’t make it? I might as well get an education,’” says Nadija about Willie’s decision to accept a hockey scholarship to Clarkson University in upstate New York.
Willie was unexpectedly drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the eighth round, 199th overall, in the 1996 NHL entry draft. So unexpectedly that not only was he not present for the Draft, but he wasn’t even waiting at home for a phone call. Chantelle fielded the call from Devils management and gave them the number for grandma’s house, where Willie was taking a shower after a day at hockey camp.
“We were very surprised, but it was great,” admits Nadija. “But even getting drafted, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make it.”
But make it, Willie did. And who knows, perhaps it was the realistic perspective ingrained in him that forced Willie to develop the work ethic, reliability, and consistency that he’s become known for throughout his 14-year NHL career.
Although he played for four different teams before signing with the Kings in the in the summer of 2010, Willie had never made it to the Stanely Cup Final until 2012, which made the Championship that much sweeter for the then 35 year-old and his family.
“I shed tears. It made me go back to all the concussions, the injuries, the highs and lows of his hockey career. People just see the glory or whatever, but it’s not like that,” explains Nadija, about the rush she felt at the final buzzer in 2012. “I felt joy for him, that he finally managed to achieve that after all the adversity – it was a very special moment.”
The adversity Nadija speaks of includes a serious concussion that kept Willie out of the final 34 games of the 2009-10 season while playing with the Vancouver Canucks, one that very well could have ended his career, had he not been able to convince a team like the Kings that he could still play at a high level.
That was then and this is now – a now that consists of some nervous nights in front of the TV at home for Nadija and Reid, watching playoff games, and some nervous nights at work, as both work shifts and are sometimes forced to miss games. Both were working during Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks and were unable to watch, but a co-worker of Nadija’s brought in satellite radio so that she could listen.
Rest assured, both will be in attendance for tonight’s Game 5 to watch Willie play for his second Stanley Cup in three years – remarkable for someone who was planning for a life outside of hockey.
If that determined kid at heart finds a way to help the Kings to one more victory this season, Nadija probably won’t be that surprised.
Change is a good thing.
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