VANCOUVER - The nerves and apprehension are gone for defenceman Willie Mitchell, who is back in the NHL after a long recovery from a concussion.
And there was a twist of irony Saturday as he prepared to face his former Vancouver Canuck teammates as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s kind of ironic, my first game back . . . my old team and teammates in a city that was home for me,”a smiling Mitchell said after the game-day skate.“But that’s kind of nice too because a lot of those people and friends were there for me throughout the journey.”
It's one that began Jan. 16 behind the Canuck net when Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin checked the vulnerable Mitchell head-first into the end boards.
Mitchell couldn’t tolerate noise or brightness and didn’t start feeling better until the Canucks were out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But by mid-July he was skating symptom-free and lifting weights two or three times a day under the supervision of a personal trainer in his tiny hometown of Port McNeil on Vancouver Island.
“It’s been a long road, a tough road at times but a great road the last three or four months,”Mitchell said, sweat still cascading down his face.
He met a few former teammates in the corridors of Rogers Arena before the Kings took to the ice.
“It probably means a lot more than he says it does,”Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo said of Mitchell’s homecoming.“He loved it here and I don’t think he really wanted to leave.”
When Vancouver didn’t offer a contract to the stay-at-home defenceman after four seasons with the club, Mitchell didn’t explore free agency right away.
He eventually signed a two-year, US$7-million deal with the Kings in August.
“It wasn’t the normal path for a player, I guess, when free agency starts July 1,”he said.“It might have closed a few doors but I knew if I did things the right way teams would be there in the end.”
There were nerves at first, even for an 11-year veteran now with his fifth NHL team.
“The first exhibition game snuck up on me,”Mitchell said.“The next thing you know, this is for real and after being off that long it’s only human nature to be like, OK, the first time you go in the corner to get a puck ... and as a defenceman you get hit in this game.
“I was nervous. I was just moving the puck. I didn’t play that well.”
But that has changed, said coach Terry Murray who has partnered Mitchell with Drew Doughty, a London, Ont. native who many feel has a Norris Trophy in his future.
“(He’s) a veteran player, a defensive defenceman who adds to the offensive part of the game," Murray said. "I think he’s going to be a stabilizing force to keep pushing and helping Drew Doughty to the next level of play.
“He’s got plenty of experience and physical, hard, gritty play and brings a nice energy to the lockerroom. He’s always got a smile on his face.”
Mitchell, who has only 19 goals in 586 regular-season games and one in 45 payoff contests, is developing chemistry with Doughty.
“We have the same personalities on and off the ice,”said Doughty.“We like to have a lot of fun but at the same time we take hockey pretty seriously.
“He’s always talking up in the room. He’s a big leader and he’s been a leader for a long time. We’re all taking in everything.”