The quotes from the conference call with Willie Mitchell and Dean Lombardi are quite substantial, so I’ll break them into two parts and post the first half right now. In short, Mitchell talked about how he delayed his decision, in terms of picking a team, well beyond July 1 in order to make sure he felt healthy and was making the correct choice. Mitchell said he is healthy and has been symptom-free since June after his third concussion. Lombardi raved about Mitchell, expressed confidence in his health and seemed firm that he would not need to add another defenseman before the start of the season. Here’s the first part of the interviews…
Question: Willie, your free-agent process took longer than it might have normally. Can you talk about some of the things you went through, your thought process with the injury, and what was most important to you in making this decision?
MITCHELL: “I think I tried to have a pretty open process with the teams that contacted me and everyone who was kind of involved in the situation. I was pretty open about what I felt I needed to do. First was to do the things I needed to do, for a checks and balances system, to make sure I was prepared and ready to play. I didn’t want to go about this in a way where, as soon as July 1 started, and having not been through all those hurdles and all those things, I was putting a general manager or a team in a position where they didn’t want to be. So it took a lot longer than probably a typical free agency is, for some players to sign, but I feel confident with the right fit. I was fortunate enough to have some teams contact me, and the L.A. Kings were a good fit, to be honest with you. There was a lot of excitement from the staff that I met down in L.A. I really felt that they believed in me as a player, and that’s where you want to be as a player, somewhere where you feel that they believe in you. I got the feeling that they felt I would be a really good fit. For me personally, it’s a chance to be part of a young, up-and-coming team that has a lot of great things going, and hopefully I can fit in with that, with some of my experience in the league, and help get the team to another level.”
Question: Did you find yourself, due to your health, in a situation of having to explain yourself to teams that might have been interested in you?
MITCHELL: “I think it was a unique situation. First of all, a player coming off of an injury like this is unique. Second of all, a player coming off an injury like this and heading into free agency is even more unique. Personally, like I said, I did all this for me, not for anyone else, so to speak. Originally, I wanted to do it for myself. Then, once I did all those things, I obviously started to entertain the teams, and I just wanted to do it in a way that was upfront and could give them as much information as possible, to see where I’m at and how I’m doing. I think it’s been widely known, by most people, that I visited some teams to show my health. I also did some testing up here at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, the typical testing that we do at the start of the year, to show that I’m capable of all those things and that everything was on track. Like I said, I just think that was the right thing to do.”
Question: Willie, was the concussion you had last year the first of your career, or how many have their been?
MITCHELL: “I’ve had three concussions in my career. Obviously this one was a lot longer than I would have expected, or would have wanted, but I really took it, to be honest with you, as a great learning experience for me, to appreciate the things you have and realize that you can only control the things that you can control. People look at it as a bad experience, but it’s really been one of the best experiences. Obviously, going through it early on was not a great experience, but coming out of it has been one of the better experiences I’ve had, as far as a lifelong lesson. I’m looking forward to getting going again.”
Question: Dean, how significant of a factor was the injury to Matt Greene in terms of pursuing Willie?
LOMBARDI: “No factor. No. We saw him as the perfect fit for this team, so no. We would have been just as aggressive, whether Greenie was ready right at the start or not. No, it was never an issue. This guy was one of the top guys on our list for fit and what he could bring to our team at this stage of our franchise, so not, it was not a factor.”
Question: Willie, having to wait as long as you did, did it limit offers for you?
MITCHELL: “If you listen to my agent, he probably wasn’t the happiest guy in the world, but like I said, yeah, by doing it the way I did, I might have closed some doors for myself, but I wanted to do it on my terms. I didn’t want to do it with all the pressures weighing on me, and I didn’t want to make the wrong decision because of those pressures, as far as going about my health the right way or the decision as far as entertaining teams. It could have, that’s for sure, but like I said, my process for the whole thing was first about going about my business, and then entertaining teams that were interested. I felt that the teams that were interested, as I was going about it this way, were probably the teams that were most interested in my services. Like I said, with L.A., I had a really good feeling about them, as far as the fit, and that’s why we’re here on the call right now.”
Question: Can you talk about what it’s like to come into a new situation? What guys do you have relationships with already?
MITCHELL: “Not many on the team. Personally, I’ve played on a couple teams, so I’m just going to come in and do the same things I’ve done for the teams I’ve played for that have brought me success as an individual. I like to think I play a very reliable game, that I’m one of the most reliable players on the ice for a coach. I like to think I bring a calm presence, and hopefully I can do that for a young team in certain situations. As a player, you just come in and try to fit in. They have a good young team that’s got some good chemistry. They’re on the rise, and as a player you want to come in and not affect that. You want to slide in, be a good listener, see what’s going on and go out there and work hard and earn the respect of your teammates, your peers, and get into the fabric of the team that way. Obviously I’ll try to do what I can do, with my experience, to help with that and get the team to the next level. That’s what it’s about, for all of us.”
Question: Was staying in the West a factor for you in any way?
MITCHELL: “For me, it was just a good fit, playing on a team that has a chance to win and playing in the right situation, where I felt it would be good for me as a hockey player and going to a team and hopefully making a big difference. Obviously that’s earned by a hockey player, but I feel there’s some good synergy there, as far as the young defensemen they have in L.A., and that it’s a good fit for me to go down there and do what I’ve been doing in the league and continue to help in that way.”
Question: Willie, was there a runner-up on this decision for you? It had been reported that Washington, San Jose and Vancouver were in the mix along with the Kings, but was there a close second on this one?
MITCHELL: “That’s not a very fair to question to ask, to be honest with you. It’s pretty widely known that there were some other teams interested, and I appreciate them for having the interest in me. It wasn’t an easy decision for me and my family, and for a guy who played for the team that he grew up watching. I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed that opportunity and I took a lot of pride in that. I played hard for the city and I got a lot of things back from the city. That’s what I plan on doing in L.A., going down there and playing hard and doing those things. But I don’t think that’s a fair question to answer.”
Question: Have you talked to Terry Murray, and have you already campaigned to play with Drew Doughty?
MITCHELL: “(laughs) Like I said, as a player you just go about what you do. It’s the GM’s job to do GM duties. It’s the coach’s job to do all that. As a player, it’s my job to go out there and put my best game on the ice, improve on my game and do whatever is in my power to make myself better and the team better. The coach’s job is to make those decisions, based on what fit he thinks is best for the team and for everyone as a whole.”
Question: Willie, you’re probably aware that the Kings’ first game happens to be against the Canucks on Oct. 9. How do you think that’s going to feel?
MITCHELL: “It’s going to make it easy for my family and friends, that’s for sure, to see me on a new team and come support me. It will be interesting. Actually, my wife looked that up before I did. It will be fun. There will be a lot of energy, a lot of emotion. Like I touched upon earlier, you don’t play for a team for four years without trying to accomplish the things that all of the teams in this league are trying to do, win the Stanley Cup. You don’t put in all that time and energy with your teammates without having some emotion for that game. It will be really emotional and really charged. It will be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to doing that. Hopefully I get my colors right on the first night.”
Question: I know it’s a business, but is there any sadness in leaving a city that you were close to, and a team that I think a lot of you guys felt was close to achieving the ultimate goal?
MITCHELL: “I think there are things that happen in life, in hockey, that are unexpected. Nobody expected my season to be cut short like it did. The product of that was, teams need to make moves. They have to do things that they need to do. There’s a CBA in place that has cap restraints and all that, so things happen just as a product of that situation. That was one of them, but like I said, I enjoyed my time in Vancouver. I poured everything out on it, and I’ve still got some unfinished business left as a hockey player. That’s holding something up over my head, and I’m really looking forward to going down to L.A. and trying to accomplish that. Being a guy who has kind of been around a little bit, and had some experiences in the playoffs and stuff like that, I think I can help get that team to the next level.”
Question: Willie, when did you sort of come to the realization, in your mind, that it wasn’t going to happen in Vancouver, that you were going to have to move on? Was it a long time ago, when they got Keith Ballard, or were they still in the mix right until the end?
MITCHELL: “I don’t know. Like I said, there were a lot of moving parts to it all. I think it’s really a unique situation, like I said, because of the circumstances. There were a lot of moving parts in all directions, with general managers wanting to know about my health, and everyone involved. I went down to L.A. and had a good sit-down with them for the day. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about the fit and, to be honest with you, I went down there and walked away and you just have a feeling that it’s right, a feeling that is genuine, that they feel you can come in and make a difference and help the team. That, to me, was exciting. I like that. I like that challenge, I like that opportunity. Those kind of things bring the best out of my game. So that’s why I chose the direction that I did.”