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Mitchell's Cup journey connects his past with present

by Kevin Woodley

PORT McNEILL, B.C. -- For Willie Mitchell, it wasn't enough to thank the tiny town that raised and nurtured him -- as both a hockey player and young man -- during his one day with the Stanley Cup.

For the veteran defenseman of the Los Angeles Kings, it was important to also honor the First Nation community that continues to stoke his spiritual side every summer as he searches for balance through the area's incredible natural surroundings, away from the pressures of being a professional athlete.

For Mitchell, 35, it was important to thank the entire north end of Vancouver Island -- even if the effort left him worn out for the little private time remaining.

So Mitchell split the bulk of a long day with the Stanley Cup between his hometown of Port McNeill and at the 'Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay on nearby Cormorant Island. In Port McNeill, Mitchell posed for pictures in the arena where he learned to skate with a crowd estimated at approximately 6,000 – more than double the population of the little logging town.

After a short flight, he landed in Alert Bay, greeted by a reception of 'Namgis donning their traditional robes and headdress and dancing to drums around the smoky fire in their Big House.

"It's about the whole north Island, but these two places in particular," Mitchell, still sweating from his peace dance, told before boarding a helicopter to take him to the top of Mount Waddington for the kind of top-of-the-world photos inspired by fellow B.C. native Scott Niedermayer.

From there, the Cup was off to a quiet, private evening with family, including grandfather Lester, who once tried out for the New York Rangers.

"Obviously, Port McNeill is where I grew up and that was about thanking everyone who helped me get to this point," said Mitchell, who started the morning by taking the Cup salmon fishing with family and friends. "And then the 'Namgis, I respect their culture. They connect with earth and the environment and I love the outdoors. I love the sound of the river, the sound of the ocean, the sound of an eagle in the trees. That's my therapeutic place, and their culture is as well, so that's why we connect in there."

The ceremony in Alert Bay started with drumming, dancing and people in brightly colored traditional outfits assembled along either side of a path laid out for Mitchell and the Cup's arrival, with cedar branches along the edge of a walkway blessed by the elders. Cheers followed Mitchell into the Big House, soon replaced by the trailing drums that reverberated deep inside the wall-to-wall crowd by the time Mitchell and his wife, Megan, were seated on a large hand-carved and painted bench.

The Stanley Cup sat beside them atop a table covered by a ceremonial button blanket, with rows of elders and drummers behind, and a fire burning in front, smoke lifting out openings atop the big wooden building as light from those holes and the fire shone on the Cup.

"He has brought this Stanley Cup to our House, bringing all of those great players whose names are on that Cup into our House also with their spirits," Chief Bill Cranmer said in his remarks, reflecting on the significance of Mitchell's visit.

The Chief bestowed on Mitchell a new name – Xanyadzam, which translates to "truly amazing person" – and a vest with a colorful Killer Whale stitched into it.

"We've all heard Alert Bay being called the home of the killer whale and it's also one of the crests of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations [of which the 'Namgis are a part]," Cranmer said. "So this vest has nothing to do with the Canucks logo."

After some laughs – Mitchell played four seasons for a Vancouver Canucks team he and most in the area grow up cheering before leaving as a free agent to Los Angeles – Cranmer revealed that the vest came with a price: An obligation to dance.

And dance Mitchell did.

After adding a full headdress along with his new vest, Mitchell started by doing a peace dance with the 'Namgis youth, some of whom ferry across to play hockey in the same Port McNeill rink that started both his career -- and this long day. Then, after a seemingly endless parade of pictures through every corner of the big room, Mitchell danced with a much larger group around the fire, bracing the Cup on his shoulders as he bobbed through the bodies before hoisting it high overhead with Chief Cranmer.

It was a first for the Cup, according to its keeper on this trip, which is saying something for a trophy that dates back to 1892 and has been used for everything from baptizing babies to dipping chips to a more traditional swilling of champagne, and been everywhere from the White House to swimming pools to Lenin's tomb.

"It's been a tiresome week leading up to this too but it's all about giving back," said a weary sounding Mitchell, who was still smiling as he left Alert Bay. "I mean, hello … how good was that? It was unreal."

If Mitchell's second public stop was new for the Cup, his first was more traditional, designed to thank the small town that fostered a young man's dreams.

After a late night Saturday with close friends in Vancouver and some early fishing around Port McNeill, Mitchell arrived to long lines and loud cheers at the Chilton Regional Arena, where a picture of him hoisting the Cup already looks down on the playing surface.

"As a kid sitting over in that corner tying my skates and eating my salmon sandwiches – because that's what we do here, right? – I dreamed of playing in the NHL," he told the crowd. "And just like all these kids here, I played road hockey games and dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup and holy you-know-what, it's here."

On hand to celebrate its arrival was close to triple the population, and the stay-at-home defenseman stayed until all had been part of a picture with him and it.

"It's a long journey and lot of people help you along it," Mitchell told later in a day now officially known as Willie Mitchell Day in Port McNeill, which entitled him to a solid gold key to the town. "I was looking around and there were a lot of faces I knew everywhere. From a town of 2,500 people, you connect with everyone. It's not just a few people. Everyone is kind of your friend and family in a community like that. It was really emotional."

Mitchell's father, Reid, watched from the background, content he had his day with the Cup when he joined his son on the ice and in the celebratory Kings' locker room after the Game 6 victory against the New Jersey Devils two months ago. For Reid, Sunday was about the community that made it possible, and inspiring others to play.

"Today is for sharing with the whole North Island community," he said. "And it's so good he does that because he never would have got to the NHL if they hadn't built this arena when they built it. When I came to the North Island, we didn't have an arena."

The arena was built in the late 1970s -- just in time for a toddler named Willie to start skating.

Reid Mitchell, now 62, recalled those early years, and coming home from overnight shifts at Western Forest Products -- where he still works -- to sleep for a few hours before meeting his young son up at the rink for a public skate during the school's lunch hour.

"It was always our special moment," Reid said. "His mom would pick him up, he'd sit on the bleachers having his salmon sandwich and I'd be doing up his skates."

Reid credited his father, Lester, for providing any natural talent – "whatever he knows about fishing he learned form me, but his hockey skills he got from his grandpa" – and the only coach he'd singled out was the Kings' Darryl Sutter. That's because there were so many coaches, parents, volunteers, league organizers and rink builders – not to mention the work ethic built into so many small, resource-based towns -- that combined to facilitate his son's late-bloomer journey to NHL champion possible.

"Yeah, you have to have God-given talent, but you have to have the programs in place to expand on those skills and Will knows that," he said. "That's why the Cup is here. It's his way of paying back all of the North Island that has helped him to get to the NHL."

And maybe inspire a few of the next generation to follow in those skate strides.

"Hey, Willie Mitchell made it," Reid said. "And you know what? Will was never the best player on any team he played on. He was always one of the better players, but he wasn't the best. It kind of shows you don't have to be the best, but if you’re good and you work hard with your skills, you never know how far you are going to get."

Maybe you'll even get all the way back to home – with a Stanley Cup overhead and a champion's welcome waiting.

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