Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick celebrates with teammates Willie Mitchell, left, and Drew Doughty after winning Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals in Glendale, Ariz., on May 22, 2012. If the Los Angeles Kings find themselves in need of a little extra motivation in this Stanley Cup, they need only look to Willie Mitchell. He's played more than 700 NHL games over 12 seasons and is chasing his first championship. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - Matt York
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Win it for Willie.
If the Los Angeles Kings ever find themselves in need of a little extra motivation in this Stanley Cup final, they can always fall back on that.
Willie Mitchell, one of the few true veterans on a baby-faced team, has made it his mission to ensure his teammates understand exactly how precious this opportunity is.
The former eighth-round pick from Port McNeill, B.C., waited 12 years while gutting his way through 785 NHL games and another 115 in the American Hockey League to arrive at this moment. And he's making the absolute most of it.
"I can just talk about how much I'm enjoying it at (age) 35," Mitchell said Monday before Game 3. "There's guys in here who have won Stanley Cups ... and they can give me perspective on it. There's a lot of guys that are highly motivated.
"All of us have different stories, all of us have different reasons, but the one thing that motivates us all is the same thing, right?"
It seems like every championship team has a Willie Mitchell. A good, honest player who hasn't attracted much attention while carving out a respectable career that would look even better if it included a championship.
Mitchell has come full circle to this series against New Jersey, the team that drafted him 199th overall in 1996. He was even one of the extra players that travelled with the Devils when they won the Stanley Cup in 2000.
However, he wasn't truly a part of that team and ended up having to make stops in Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver before finally getting the chance to play for a championship. His experience is extremely important for a Kings team that carries an average age of 26.3—teammate Drew Doughty said he didn't truly grasp what the team accomplished until seeing Mitchell in the dressing room after winning the Western Conference final.
The veteran defenceman's presence on the ice has been equally important while logging more ice time than every Kings player but Doughty in these playoffs.
"I think being a guy who has been around, I've learned from things on the defensive side of things," said Mitchell.
As the Kings returned home for Games 3 and 4 of the final, they were bursting with energy while thinking about the opportunity that lies before them.
This a charmed run for the eighth seed in the Western Conference unlike anything seen in two decades. Mitchell's theory is that the city played a major role in their season—he thinks the lack of pressure and attention hurt them when they struggled early on and believes it's helped them stay focused during the playoffs.
"Down here, there's a lot of other sporting events going on and making headlines," said Mitchell. "I think in this instance it's really helped us, we can get away from it. ... It's not like Canada where every network, every radio station is carrying everything.
"Like I said, I think that helps us at this time of year. And to be quite frank I think it hurt us earlier in the year—we weren't playing very good hockey and it didn't really get a lot of attention."
There is no doubting their focus now.
A handful of players in the dressing room have previously had the chance to lift the Stanley Cup and they aren't shy about discussing the experience. In fact, forward Dustin Penner finds himself reflecting more and more on the championship he won in Anaheim five years ago now that the Kings are knocking at the door.
"I don't have a picture over my mantel, I don't see it every day, I don't think about it every day," said Penner. "Now in the playoffs you tend to—making it as far as we did. You know that's the end game for every professional hockey player that enters the NHL.
"They want to win the Stanley Cup."
Just ask Willie.