EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Willie Mitchell
wonders what would have happened if Les Widdifield hadn't seen him play 16 years ago.
Widdifield was a longtime scout for the New Jersey Devils
, and he spotted a young Mitchell playing in tiny Melfort, Sasakatchewan. Widdifield, who died last September, liked what he saw and told his bosses to give this Mitchell kid a long look.
"I still remember that phone call," said Mitchell, who was drafted 199th by New Jersey in 1996 and spent five seasons in the organization. "They took a flyer on me – eighth round, 199 in 1996 playing Tier 2 junior. Probably if they didn't do that, I would have never got the chance."
Mitchell is now in his 14th NHL season and, as the oldest member of the Los Angeles Kings
at 35, will face the Devils when the Stanley Cup Final starts Wednesday.
It's one of the many ties between the Kings and Devils. Kings general manager Dean Lombardi has Devils GM Lou Lamoriello as a mentor. Mike Richards
used to play for New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer
in the OHL. Matt Greene
and Zach Parise
were college roommates at North Dakota, and Alec Martinez
and Andy Greene
played at Miami of Ohio.
New Jersey assistant coach Larry Robinson
is a former Kings player who coached Mitchell in New Jersey. Mitchell can't overstate Robinson's influence.
"I always say he's probably one of the smartest guys around," Mitchell said. "You've got Larry there for it seems like eternity. He's probably the best teacher out there for young defensemen in the League. He's Larry Robinson
. He's smart with position, smart with the stick, thinks the game well, and he's a really good teacher.
"When you have that in your organization, to teach your young defenseman, a lot of them develop into great players. That's still a staple of their team – working from the net out."
Mitchell remembers those formative years when he was trying to land a job on New Jersey's blue line. He was converted from forward to defenseman at 15 and had grown into the role, but it was a different story at the League level.
LOOK (AND FEEL) LIKE A KING
was kind of sucking me in and making me look stupid," Mitchell said. "Larry was saying, 'Don't take the candy.' As a young kid, it finally clued in that you can't be aggressive like that. I was trying to be aggressive all over the ice. You got to let them come to you."
Mitchell actually says that that defensive-system that was drilled into him in New Jersey and later the Minnesota Wild
got him labeled as a stay-at-home shutdown type. Under Kings coach Darryl Sutter
, he's evolved into more of an offensive defenseman.
Sutter plays Mitchell on the second power-play unit. He scored his first career power-play goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's a refreshing career renaissance, but Mitchell knows he wouldn't be in this position without those New Jersey roots.
"I owe a great deal to that organization," he said. "They taught me so much. They developed me as a player. I like to think I'm a good defensive defenseman, play against top players. I actually learned quite a bit from guys that are still there."