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Mitchell Out To Prove He's Healthy

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Willie Mitchell missed the rest of the 2009-10 season after a hit from Evgeni Malkin.

Willie Mitchell suddenly, and unfortunately, had plenty of spare time.

Forced out of action in January by a concussion, Mitchell spent parts of his days in a hyperbaric chamber, receiving oxygen therapy in a tube that left him with few entertainment. options beyond watching DVDs or listening to music.

One day, Mitchell grabbed a motivational speaker’s CD that had been collecting dust in his house, one titled "The Maverick Mindset." Mitchell listened, and the timing couldn’t have been better, as it provided a framework for his eventual return to the NHL.

"It's funny how it was sitting on my countertop and I never touched it," Mitchell said. "Then something like this happens to you, and it's like, `Well, I've got time to kill in this chamber, so I'm going to listen to it.' It was probably one of the best things I've ever picked up in my life, in terms of it being a life lesson but also in being an athlete like I am. A lot of it was talking about controlling the things that you can control and not worrying about all the external factors that ultimately, at the end of the day, you have no bearing over."

The message helped bring calm and clarity to Mitchell. He stopped worrying about how his teammates would fare without him, stopped stressing about his recovery and, as much as possible, stopped wondering whether he would ever play hockey again.

It has all worked out well so far, and Mitchell took a big step last week when he signed a two-year contract with the Kings. Mitchell figures to be a huge part of the Kings’ defense when they open the season on Oct. 9 against the Vancouver Canucks.

The irony isn’t lost on Mitchell, given that his last game was in a Vancouver uniform, on Jan. 16. It, and his season, ended after he was smashed head-first into the end boards by Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, and Mitchell began suffering concussion symptoms.

Days turned to weeks, which turned to months, and Mitchell’s condition didn’t improve. While he stops short of saying he fell into depression, Mitchell said that not until he listened to the CD did he start to get himself into the proper mindset for a recovery.

"When you have a concussion, obviously you get hit in the head and you have a headache," Mitchell said. "The toughest thing about it as that you care a lot -- which I do, I love hockey -- and you want to help your team out. So what do you do? You stress, and therefore what does that give you? A headache, and that's the one thing you're trying to overcome. So it's just about controlling the things you can control. What I could control during that whole process were the things I was doing to get healthy. The rest of those things, I had absolutely no control over."

Now, the 33-year-old Mitchell has something else he can focus on: proving to doubters that he’s healthy, that he can play the same hard-nosed style that allowed him to become one of the most respected defensemen in the NHL.

Surely, Mitchell’s life would be easier had he remained healthy last season, which made it more than a bit curious when, during his introductory conference call after signing with the Kings, he repeatedly referred to the concussion as "a great learning experience."

"I think it's going to be a blessing in terms of my performance on the ice," Mitchell said. "Sometimes you might think, `Oh, what was my defense partner doing there?' or `What were we doing there?' At the end of the day, I've got no control over that. All I have is control over what I'm doing on the ice. If you worry about other things, I think you expend more of your energy away from what you should be doing. If you worry about the things you're doing, you become a better hockey player."

Mitchell wouldn’t seem to have much room for improvement. The fact that he’s rarely seen on highlight packages is actually a testament to his success.

Mitchell is the type of defenseman who should thrive under coach Terry Murray’s system. He’s big (6-foot-3, 208 pounds), reliable, consistent and, in the view of general manager Dean Lombardi, has underrated puck-movement skills.

Players such as Mitchell rarely become household names, though. In 586 games with New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver, he totaled 19 goals and 100 assists. Mitchell’s value, however, is not measured by his own statistics.

"My game is much different than a lot of people see, in the sense that a lot of what I do hopefully goes unnoticed," Mitchell said. "Sometimes it goes unnoticed, but what I do is play against the best players in the world and keep them off the scoresheet. That's what I do. I've done that my whole career. I take a lot of pride in that. I love that challenge.

"If I can keep, say, Joe Thornton off the score sheet -- and that's tough to do, obviously, when you're in power-play situations -- but if I can keep him off the score sheet at even strength, in 23 minutes, 24 minutes, I like our team's chances. If I can keep a 40-goal scorer off the score sheet, I consider that to be like scoring 40 goals."

Whether he ends up being paired with Drew Doughty or Jack Johnson -- the two most likely options, heading into training camp -- Mitchell will play a significant role in the Kings’ stated goal of improving their 5-on-5 scoring margin.

Mitchell chuckled at the discovery that he, at 33, is the Kings’ oldest defenseman -- now that Sean O’Donnell has moved on to Philadelphia -- and the Kings will particularly rely on Mitchell during the first month, while Matt Greene recovers from shoulder surgery.

For the past two seasons in Vancouver, though, Mitchell served as an alternate captain, so he figures to become part of the Kings’ leadership group, if only informally.

"I've been fortunate to be around some great, great minds in the game," Mitchell said. "I was coached by Jacques Lemaire, by Larry Robinson, and I thank God that I was lucky enough to listen to those guys. They're great, great minds. I played with Scotty Stevens and (Scott) Niedermayer, and I think I learned a lot of things from those great players and great minds. I hope to maybe help out in that capacity a little bit with some of the young players on this team."

Mitchell’s decision to join the Kings was not a hasty one. Although his concussion symptoms cleared up in mid-June, Mitchell told his agent to remain on the sidelines when the free-agency period began on July 1.

When defensemen such as Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis and Anton Volchenkov signed big, multi-year contracts, Mitchell waited. He wanted to be confident, confident that he wouldn’t be putting his health at risk and confident that he was choosing a team for the correct reasons.

Not until August did Mitchell, at his own choosing, start something of a league-wide tour. He reportedly visited San Jose, Vancouver and Washington, in addition to the Kings, and put himself through workouts to demonstrate that he was ready to play.

And while Mitchell, a British Columbia native, speaks well of his time with the Canucks, but had high praise for his meeting with the Kings.

"The opportunity to play with a couple of the young defensemen, who are great up-and-coming players, is exciting," Mitchell said. "I think that's a great fit. I think there are some things that I can do on the ice to help evolve their games, and I think the things that they can do on the ice will actually help evolve my game. I just turned 33, but whoever you are -- player, coach, GM -- you never stop learning.

"There are a lot of good fits. That, to me, was really intriguing. I met Tim Leiweke and heard about their commitment to the organization and what they want to do, and win. That, to me, is really exciting."

Mitchell knows that many eyes will be on him, watching to see if he’s still the same player, watching to see his reaction when he takes that first big hit.

But if this year taught Mitchell anything, it’s that he can’t control what other people think. When Mitchell returns to the ice, his focus will be on himself, and applying the lessons he learned from being away from the game for so long.

"You take your health for granted," Mitchell said. "You take everything for granted. In life, sometimes, it's not until you're pushed into a corner or dealt a tough situation… You don't learn things in life when things are going well. You only learn when things aren't going as planned. That's when you learn the most in life. I think this experience was one of the best learning experiences of my life. Early on, it wasn't the best situation, that's for sure, but it turned out to be one of the best learning experiences."
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