My story begins at age 3 in Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I would play on a small town rink in the middle of Vancouver Island and at that age I was just trying to stay on my feet and that was all. I never then imagined that I would be the first guy from my hometown to play in the NHL, which is quite an honor.
I did have an early love for the game of hockey. That was due in large part to my grandfather playing a bit back in the “Original Six” days. Hockey was in my family because of that and I lived in such a small town that in the middle of winter there wasn’t much to do so my parents would send me to the rink to spend all my energy there. It was then I fell in love with the game. Most kids would play soccer or baseball at lunch time but I would walk across the soccer field and go skate every day.
Probably like most of the guys who make it to the NHL, I was pretty good when I was younger. You have to evolve your game actually. When I was a kid I was a forward and I was kind of like a top scorer. When I was 15 they turned me into a defenseman when I went away to private school and from then on I have been a defenseman.
Back home hockey was the only thing for a kid to do in the winter there and I was about two-and-one-half hours away from any civilization where I grew up. We were more than 200 miles away from the next closest town. I remember we played against just a couple of kids in the area and when we played our games we had to drive two-and-one-half hours for your closest game. That was hockey for me growing up as a kid.
I wasn’t making the long drives. My parents were thank goodness. I was right around 7 or 8 years old when those began. We would travel as far as seven hours and we drove a lot of miles on the weekends.
For someone who has never been to where I am from it is very hard to describe it. My front yard was an ocean so we had humpback whales, killer whales, eagles sitting in trees, and grizzly bears. It was and remains a playground for the outdoors while also featuring a densely populated area in the world for cougars. It’s a very remote place but if you’re into that stuff it’s amazing. The area is called North Vancouver Island.
As a kid I also really followed Junior A hockey. I’m 33 so I grew up in the early 80s and it was Gretzky, Messier and Cam Neely, and when I got older I was a Roenick fan and he was in his prime. But I never had this vision of playing in the NHL. I just wanted to play Tier II hockey. By age 16 the major junior teams were getting my rights and after that I thought that it might be a possibility. I went to a private school in Saskatchewan that was kind of known as a hockey factory. Notre Dame has a laundry list of NHLers who went there then and went there at a young age. That introduced to me to U.S. college hockey. Education was super important to me and that was the route I chose. I ended up going to a small engineering school in upstate New York and played Division I hockey there.
I think that background in business still helps me today because I’m a numbers guy. I’m really into numbers and I’m actually an avid finance guy. I do a lot of it on my own and I plan on making more money doing that than playing hockey.
|Willie Mitchell feeds the puck to Anze Kopitar against New Jersey earlier this season. The Devils drafted Mitchell in the 8th round in 1996. |
But I feel fortunate to have a career in hockey because I never expected to be drafted. I was playing Tier II hockey at the time and I was over-age. In Canada everyone gets drafted out of Major Junior and I was playing a level below that. In the summer I was at my grandmother’s house about five hours away from my hometown training when my grandmother who knew nothing about hockey said, ‘Someone from New Jersey is on the phone.’ I took the call and found out I was drafted by the Devils. I felt very fortunate to get drafted that way because a lot of these guys know they are going to be drafted and I had no clue whatsoever. So it was the biggest surprise and it was a lot of fun.
At the time I was drafted, I had some U.S. colleges that wanted me to come down so I flew down. The problem was that I had played well in a couple tournaments kind of late that everyone had given their scholarships away. So I actually went back for another year of Tier II Junior, which is very, very rare. But it ended up being the best thing for me.
I had a very good year offensively and I kind of rounded out my game a bit. Then I went to Clarkson University and did very well down there. I had a great freshman year and made the All-America team the second year I was there. After two years of college hockey with Clarkson the Devils offered me a contract to turn pro and I always thought I could go back and finish up at school but there was only that small window of opportunity to follow the dream of playing in the NHL.
So I signed and turned professional in 1999 but I broke my hand in training camp. I spent most of the year in the minors except for two games. The Devils made the playoffs that year so I got to practice with the team during playoffs as an extra but the following year I was with the team raising the championship banner from those playoffs.
My first NHL game I was lucky because Scott Stevens was sick so they called me up for the game against the Maple Leafs. I remember walking around the hotel in the morning and seeing Scott Stevens and I thought, ‘What the heck is he doing here?’ He was supposed to be in New Jersey, out sick, and now I thought he was coming to town to play. He played that night and John Madden came up to me and said, ‘Tough luck kid, you’re out of the lineup.’
I ended up getting to play anyways because they sat someone else.