It’s now been almost six months since Mitchell returned to NHL action, returned from a serious concussion, the third of his career and one that severely impacted his life for months. With every on-ice hit, Mitchell still winces and his loved ones still cringe, but, knock on wood, Mitchell has showed that he’s back to being a normal NHL defenseman.
Mitchell has played a big role for the Kings this season, that of a veteran, big-minute partner for Drew Doughty
and as a key contributor on the team's strong penalty-kill unit.
And while Mitchell has missed 26 games this season because of wrist and knee injuries, he has been able to, thus far, make it through the season with an affirmative answer to the most important question: could Mitchell avoid another concussion?
``The reality is that I could get another one,'' Mitchell said. ``That's just part of the game. I think the part that I've been happy about is knowing that if it happens again, it's going to be on some bad hit from behind or something. It's not going to be something that's just incidental. I think that's what you're scared of, when you first come back. I've had my moments where I kind of tested it, so now I don't really even think about it at all.''
The latest test came last week, when Phoenix's Kyle Turris flipped a wrist shot that hit Mitchell -- who was not wearing a visor -- flat on his left eye. Bloodied, Mitchell went to the locker room and needed approximately 40 stitches to close cuts around his eye.
During that painful process, Mitchell felt…relief?
``To be honest with you, I hate to keep reassuring myself with this stuff, but to get hit in the head like that, with the puck, and to have my head be good, I was pretty happy about that, after what I've been through,'' Mitchell said. ``You don't want to go through this in order to reassure yourself that your head is all right, but to get hit with the puck that hard, and not have ill effects, it was something to be happy about.''
The logic might be baffling for someone who isn't an ultra-tough NHL player -- what normal person feels relief after getting a bloodied, bruised eye socket? -- but for Mitchell, who had his livelihood called into question not long ago, it makes sense.
|Willie Mitchell celebrates a goal against Pittsburgh while he was with Vancouver last season. Later in this game he would suffer the concussion that ended his season and changed his life. |
Mitchell had his perspective changed for good on Jan. 16, 2010, when he received a concussion after a hit from Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. Mitchell's symptoms didn't clear up until mid-June, and he signed a two-year contract with the Kings in August.
Then, when the season started, even though Mitchell had long since been medically cleared to play, Mitchell admitted that his history was never far from his mind. What would the first bump be like? The first big hit? The first crash into the boards?
``Early on, the reality is that I was scared to do a lot of things,'' Mitchell said. ``It took time, to feel comfortable giving a hit and getting a hit.''
Ironically, it was new teammate Dustin Penner
-- acquired in a tread-deadline-day deal with Edmonton -- who helped Mitchell get over some of his fears last month.
``I was playing against him in Edmonton,'' Mitchell said, ``and I was leaning into a pile and he went to spin and turn the other way, and he hit me with an elbow right on the button, right on the nose. My nose hurt and my eyes were watering.
``It hurt when I came back to the bench, but I was probably one of the only guys who gets hit in the nose and is like, `Yeah, baby!' I was happy because nothing happened when I got hit really hard like that.''
That sense of relief goes beyond Mitchell. His wife, Megan, suffered along with her husband, during those spring and summer months of 2010 when headaches and sensitivity largely restricted Mitchell's day-to-day life.
Even now, when he has played more than 40 games without incident, Mitchell said there are still on-ice moments when his wife cringes after he takes a hit.
``She's still scared,'' Mitchell said. ``I got hit in the face like this and she sees me go off after getting hit hard like that. It's kind of ironic, when you go through what I went through. The first thing you think about is, `I hope his head is all right.' When most people go through this, it's, `I hope his eye is all right.' She was worried, and Myles (Hirayama, assistant athletic trainer) went into the wives' room there and let her know everything was all right. It's tough to explain, if you haven't been through it.
``Even in the two previous concussions, I didn't have that extended period where I was in the same state for a long time. It's not fun, as the person who is going through it, and it's not fun for the wife or partner who has to be around the guy either. It's not just seeing a loved one like that. It's a bit of a drag on their life as well, because you're not going out and doing things that you would normally do together.''
As Mitchell discussed his comeback, he noted the number 91 on the white board in the Kings' locker room. The number designated Dallas Stars center Brad Richards who, at that point, had missed the previous nine games due to a concussion.
Mitchell grimaced slightly at the news that Richards would not play that night against the Kings. According to unofficial counts in public reports, there were 33 concussions in the NHL in the first two months of the season and, as Mitchell spoke on Monday, 12 players were sidelined with concussions despite the league's recent attempt to reduce them.
``I look at this as kind of a good thing, to be honest with you,'' Mitchell said. ``That might sound weird, but hopefully it's that the training staffs and people are diagnosing them better, and that guys are now less susceptible to long-term concussions because people are taking care of them better. Obviously we have more concussions in the league, and that's something we have to look at.
|Willie Mitchell and his new Cascade M11 helmet battle with Brendan Morrison of the Calgary Flames earlier this season. The helmet is designed to reduce the risk of concussions. |
``I think Bobby Clarke said it best. He said, `Back in the day, you hit someone to knock them off the puck, not to kill them.' I think, sometime in the last couple decades here, we decided that we're going to hit guys to kill them, and that has caused a few concussions. But that's how the game has evolved. As a player, you go on the ice and you assume the risk. It's just part of the game, but it's good to see that the league is starting to make some steps with that, for sure. This stuff doesn't change in a week. It takes time, and I think you're starting to see if evolve over the last couple years, in our sport and the NFL.''
Mitchell has taken measures to protect himself, most notably through headgear. Mitchell is one of the players -- along with teammate Kevin Westgarth
-- who has been wearing the new Cascade M11 helmet, which is marketed as being a concussion deterrent.
``It does a good job of dispersing the energy,'' Mitchell said. ``The other ones are pretty rigid. When you get hit, it's almost like hitting brick, because the foam is so high-density. With this, it kind of disperses the energy because it's softer.
``I get a few verbal jabs, because it's a little bit of a bigger helmet, but it's not about the mirror test for me. It's about what makes me safe.''