LOS ANGELES -- Willie Mitchell has been playing hockey since before most of his teammates were born.
At 35, Mitchell is the elder statesman on the Los Angeles Kings. He's the wise veteran of more than 700 NHL games, and a steadying presence both on the ice as one of the team's top three defensemen and in a dressing room full of guys who haven't reached their 30th birthday.
He also, like all but three of his teammates, has not won the Stanley Cup. The Kings had their first chance to claim it Wednesday night, but a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils returned this Cup Final to the East Coast. Los Angeles will have its second chance to clinch the title in Game 5 on Saturday at Prudential Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
After three decades of playing the sport he loves, trying to not to think about what might happen Wednesday night was a tough task Tuesday, and Mitchell found himself reflecting on a long and winding path to this point.
"I try to get away from it to be honest, but it is human nature," Mitchell said. "On the off day, you think about the long journey when you started in hockey at the age of three or four. Moving away from home at the age of 15 to pursue a career in the National Hockey League -- that was the ultimate and win a Stanley Cup. As a group collectively, we've given ourselves an opportunity that it is pretty surreal. That's kind of where it goes, and also to the friends and family that have supported you."
Mitchell has played for a Stanley Cup champion before -- his first two games in an NHL uniform were for the Devils in 1999-00, but he spent the vast majority of that season in Albany with the River Rats in the American Hockey League. He had played in New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver before joining the Kings as a free agent before last season.
There had been some close calls -- the Wild went on a run to the conference finals in 2003 and a couple of trips to the second round with the Canucks -- but when a 32-year-old Mitchell was ready to move again, he saw promise in Southern California.
"I don't think you sit there and talk about those things all the time, but it might come up over a beer at dinner," Mitchell said. "We had a good young group, a great team that was young and getting better every day. Hockey players always tell stories. Guys would ask how I got here, about my journey here to L.A., and why and I'd tell them why -- because I thought it was a great team and a great, young team. Of course you talk about that. It was a team that was capable of great things."
Mitchell proved to be one of the final pieces for a roster that has certainly achieved great things. He has combined with Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene to give the Kings a trio of effective, reliable defensemen to pair with the more offensively inclined Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez.
He has also been incredible at his own end of the ice during the postseason, particularly while his team is shorthanded. In 18 games, Mitchell has logged 70:41 of ice time with his team down at least one man, and opposing teams scored three goals in that span, one more than the Kings have tallied shorthanded.
"[Mitchell] is great. He's obviously been around for a while," Martinez said. "He's a great teammate and he's a great leader, especially on the back end. I think this is his first Final, but he's been around plenty to know how it works. He's obviously a real good d-man for us. You know what you're going to get from him. He's always solid, and he's a huge part of our defense and a huge part of our team.
"He's obviously well known for his defensive abilities and he's a great shutdown guy. He's got the big body, he's physical and he's got the long stick to break up plays that way too. He's a really, really smart player. He does a lot for us."
Mitchell would be considered a leader on this team because of his age, but it goes beyond that. He's been vital in helping the young defensemen mature and develop in the NHL, including plenty of on-the-fly tutoring for the rookie Voynov, who has been Mitchell's partner in this postseason.
He's also been a favorite in the dressing room of the media members covering Los Angeles' remarkable run -- for the same quality that makes him a strong voice off the ice for the Kings.
"[Mitchell] has the gift of the gab. He could sell ice to an Eskimo," center Colin Fraser said. "He's a very smart player, and I think watching video with him or going over certain plays with him, he really understands the game. Maybe a little too much, because he can really get in-depth with you and really take it to a whole new level, which I think is a good thing though. He's such a detail-oriented guy, and he's such a good professional. He's always prepared.
"It also helps that he is 35 years old and hasn't missed a beat. He plays like he is 25 years old out there."