Hockey has always been in Willie Mitchell’s blood. Raised in a hockey household and growing up in Port McNeill, British Columbia, Canada, it was only natural for this Panthers defenseman to play the game.
Mitchell’s family has always been supportive throughout his career, but he developed a special bond with his grandfather Les Mitchell, as a result of his time in the NHL.
“My grandfather had a tryout with the Rangers in the Original Six days,” Mitchell said. “I’m lucky enough he’s still alive today. It’s pretty cool to live it and share my experience with him.”
Mitchell attended Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. and played for the Clarkson Golden Knights hockey team. He was known as a strong competitor and dominant defenseman. Mitchell recorded 55 points (19-36-55) during his brief collegiate career. His head coach at the time, Mark Morris, went on to coach Los Angeles' AHL club, the Manchester Monarchs and now serves as an assistant coach for the Florida Panthers.
“I had him as a head coach in 1997-1999. It’s good seeing a familiar face coming to Florida and I saw him a lot with the L.A. organization as well,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell played second-tier hockey in the juniors with the Melfort Mustangs (1995-1997) and knew the chances of being drafted into the NHL were slim. In fact, getting drafted wasn’t on Mitchell’s mind. His parents watched the 1996 Entry Draft and joked that they didn’t see their son. One day, he received a phone call at his grandmother’s house.
“I asked my nonna to take the call, but she said it was important so I took it,” Mitchell said. “I remember the guy on the phone saying, “Hi, this is Les Widdifield from the New Jersey Devils and you’ve been drafted.” I thought it was a buddy of mine joking around,” he laughed. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything cause all these guys usually know when they’re going to get drafted and it was such a surprise for me.”
Mitchell made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils in 2000, playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. America’s eyes were on the Port McNeill native.
“There’s no better way to play your first game (than) in Canada,” said Mitchell. “To play your first NHL game in the birthplace of hockey in front of friends and family back home on TV, it couldn’t be any sweeter,” he said with a smile.
Mitchell played with the Devils for two seasons and got traded to the Minnesota Wild in 2001. Since then, Mitchell has played for the Dallas Stars (2005-2006), Vancouver Canucks (2006-2010) alongside Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, and in 2010, Mitchell signed a contract with the Los Angeles Kings (2010-2014). The moment every hockey player dreams of was waiting for Mitchell two years later after moving to California.
In 2012, the Kings made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 19 years and this was Mitchell’s first appearance in the Finals. The Kings defeated the Devils and became Stanley Cup Champions that year. The moment still gives Mitchell chills whenever he thinks about it.
“You chase around a piece of rubber from the age of four, and you dream of playing in the NHL and dream of scoring your first NHL goal,” he said. “Then, you dream of playing a significant role on a team and winning a Stanley Cup. For all of that to happen, it’s crazy. It’s nuts. It’s so fortunate and lucky. You think of all the sacrifice, obstacles, injuries, the “no’s” that you’ve been told, but yes, you did. You think about that. You think about your teammates, and accomplishments and what it means to them.”
Mitchell became a Stanley Cup Champion once again with the Kings last season, after defeating the Rangers. Winning the Cup the second time around was more personal for Mitchell after recovering from an injury.
“I had a big obstacle to climb. I was told I wasn’t going to play hockey again,” he said. “I spent a lot of time, basically a year, to get myself right to play hockey, so it had a different meaning.”
This past June, Mitchell signed a deal with the Florida Panthers after the first day of Free Agency. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Panthers visited the United States Military Academy in West Point in early October. While on top of Torne Mountain, Mitchell was named team captain. The moment has been a big change for the veteran defenseman as he adjusts to his new role on the team.
“I just try to be myself, and try to do the things I always do and try to be a good teammate,” he said. “You know, being an older guy and you want to support your younger teammates, but also show the fire and passion of the game that you think you have. Great teams have that fire and passion.”
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| KNOW YOUR CATS: Willie Mitchell |
| | Position:
Defense Jersey Number:
Port McNeill, British Columbia
: 210 lbs
: April, 23 1977
1996, Eigth Round (199th overall) by the New Jersey Devils
As captain, Mitchell sets an example for his teammates by engaging and being himself. Mitchell has played in over 800 games in his career and has 167 points (31-136-167).
The Panthers captain senses an exciting atmosphere with the Panthers organization with new changes and taking the next step for the team.
“There’s nothing better than being the underdog and coming out on top and proving others wrong,” said Mitchell. “I think everyone from players to ownership can see that.”