When Willie Mitchell joined the Kings prior to the start of the 2010-11 season, the veteran defenseman was a little leery. He was excited to wear the black and silver, but the Port McNeill, British Columbia, native was not sure exactly how he would react to living in one of the most sprawling metropolitan areas in the world.
“I think the perception I had when I came to LA was, ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many people, it is going to be crazy. There are so many cars, and so much exhaust – it is going to be overwhelming.’”
Mitchell hasn’t been overwhelmed – not on the ice where he has evolved into an important piece of the Kings defensive machine, or off as he has settled quite nicely amongst the beach, the people and all those cars in his adopted hometown of Venice.
“In my hometown, we really don’t have a lot of cars,” Mitchell said with a laugh about Port McNeill, a town of approximately 2,700 people located amongst the breathtaking, remote and rugged beauty of the northeast side of Vancouver Island. “To put it in perspective, we don’t have a stop light in the town. Here you have to worry about getting hit by a car; up there we don’t lock our doors. You have to worry about bears and cougars. I mean it when I say that.”
It is a region of British Columbia so untouched by human civilization – still so raw and still so fiercely natural – that Mitchell says you can hear the ‘wind come right off the wings’ of a bald eagle as it swoops over the ocean to snatch a fish.
“That never gets old for me,” Mitchell said. “It is a fun area.”
Vancouver Island is a wild, untamed natural playground located off the coast of British Columbia – and Port McNeill sits at the very northern tip of it, over two hours away from the closest city of Campbell River and over 250 miles and seven and a half hours from the city of Vancouver on the mainland.
And that is just how Mitchell likes it.
“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in an area like that,” the Kings 35-year-old defender said. “It is pretty spectacular.”
Mitchell’s hockey skills first took him off the island when he was 15 years old, and he has had a 12-year NHL career playing for New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas, Vancouver and the Kings. But it is his time spent travelling throughout the world that keeps him coming back home every chance he can get.
“I have travelled around to the biggest cities in North America being able to play this great game,” Mitchell said. “It is awesome, but what it has also done is given me the chance to be away and allowed me to appreciate being back home. I have friends who live [on Vancouver Island] and they don’t understand how good they have it. I now know and realize how special a place it is.”
It is a place that boasts some of the best whale watching opportunities in North America. A wilderness wonderland that features opportunities for kayaking, fly fishing, hiking, boating, stand-up paddle boarding – all within sight of bears, mountain lions, elk and deer.
“Where I am from, you just drive around and you see a bear here, a bear there,” Mitchell said. “If you are riding your bike down the street you can see them. It is almost just like seeing another human – they are everywhere.”
“[Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi] told me that I owed him a bear hunting trip,” Mitchell said. “I just told him that it really wouldn’t be that enjoyable. They are all around. I said, ‘Dean, where is the sport in that?’”
But every off-season, Mitchell keeps busy with outdoor sports at his home in Telegraph Cove, close to one of the only places in the world where adventurers routinely kayak with orca whales.
“I just find it so relaxing,” Mitchell said. “It is therapeutic. I’m really into fishing, I just love going out on the rivers and lakes and fly fishing and not seeing another person. Coming from Venice, sometimes it can be a bit eerie because you can go out up there and just not hear a word.”
Mitchell’s family has been on Vancouver Island for decades, his father moving to Port McNeill on the north side of the island when he was a young man after taking a job as a heavy duty mechanic for a logging company.
“Forty years later, he is still doing it,” Mitchell said. “I’m trying to get him to retire, but he won’t do it.”
Despite the natural beauty, growing up on the northern end of the island did have some drawbacks.
“The biggest obstacle was sometimes just getting things,” Mitchell remembered. “To drive to civilization, that was Campbell River, and that was over two hours away. There is nothing in between. You drive past mountains, rivers, lakes and finally you hit Campbell River. As a kid, that was where you had to go to have your first McDonald’s.”
But it was that isolation that in a way also helped Mitchell develop as a hockey player.
“That is what you did there,” Mitchell said. “You played hockey. The winter, you are locked in. With the two-hour drive through the mountains in the snow – you can’t drive. You are locked in. So what do you do? You go skate. That is what I did at my lunch hour at recess. I would walk across the football field and play noon hour hockey with my father.”
“I was just a typical Port McNeill kid,” Mitchell said. “I would have a fresh salmon sandwich for lunch and play hockey.”
Sometimes Mitchell and his family would have to travel seven hours for a hockey game, as they would ‘make a weekend out of it.’
“That was a way of life for us,” Mitchell said. “That is what you did. You would get in the car and know you had a long drive ahead of you.”
Mitchell’s drive to make the NHL was stoked by his father and his grandfather – a former professional hockey player in the New York Rangers system. Mitchell’s grandfather also lives on the north end of Vancouver Island, helping the Kings TV ratings in the remote hamlet.
“He was a really good player,” Mitchell said. “He really gets it and he provides me with a real passion because I know it was his dream to play in the NHL and he lives it through me every day.”
Vancouver Island has produced two other current NHL players, the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn from Victoria and Minnesota’s Clayton Stoner – also from Port McNeill.
“I just love it up there,” Mitchell said. “There is no stress at all.”
And while the natural beauty of Los Angeles might not compare with Vancouver Island, Mitchell has found quite a few ways to explore the outdoors in Southern California.
“The beach here is obviously a terrific area,” Mitchell said about his current hometown of Los Angeles. “Usually though we head up north to the Malibu area and go hiking into the canyons.”
A quick trip by Mitchell to Big Bear over Christmas put him back in the mountains for a few days, and had him thinking once again of home.
“It’s beautiful up there,” Mitchell said. “I’m just so fortunate to be able to go up there and have everything kind of stand still. I’m lucky.”
MITCHELL’S VANCOUVER ISLAND MUST DO’S
If you are going to head north into the wild of Willie Mitchell’s Vancouver Island, here are three things that Mitchell says you must do:
(1)Stubbs Island Whale Watching: : “You are going to see orcas, humpback whales, Minke whales, bald eagles and black bears,” Mitchell said. “It is an incredible experience.” (stubbs-island.com)
(2)Tide Rip Tours: “They are going to take you into an estuary in flat bottom boats to viewing platforms so you can see grizzly bears,” Mitchell said. (tiderip.com)
(3)White water rafting on Nimpkish River: “This is the longest river on Vancouver Island,” Mitchell said. “It is right where I grew up. If you raft the whole thing, it will take you three days. There are three different sections of it and it basically flows through two lakes. This is a must do. It is awesome.”