Here’s the second half of the quotes from the conference call with Willie Mitchell and Dean Lombardi…
Question: Willie, how long has it been that you’ve been symptom-free?
MITCHELL: “It goes back to the middle of June, when I started working out. I started feeling better in the middle of June. Instead of cranking it up, and knowing that July 1 was such an important date for any free agent — especially myself at the time — instead of cranking it up, I just wanted to go about things the right way and slowly, gradually build things up. I did that. Then, starting about July 11 or 12, I hired my trainer and I was kind of doing two-a-days, where I was skating in the morning and training after that. I started feeling better in June, but really when I said, `OK, everything is according to plan, it’s great,’ that was probably after I jumped all those hurdles — like I said earlier that I wanted to do — that was probably mid-July.”
Question: Was it hard to avoid any kind of depression? Obviously you’re having these headaches for weeks and months. Was there ever a point when you thought your career might get cut short because of this?
MITCHELL: “I’d lie if I said that, when you’re in it, you don’t sit there and say, `Is this going to get better?’ I have a friend who is going through it right now, and I’m trying to help him, through my experience. I think sometimes it can get misdiagnosed. Originally, when you have a concussion, sights and sounds can bother players right off the bat, so they misdiagnose that as depression. You know, your brain is telling you to stay away from that for a reason. Just because people are staying away from those things doesn’t mean they’re in a depressed state, so to speak. Truly, to be honest with you, I look at it as such a great experience, as far as learning about life and not taking things for granted and controlling things you can control in that environment. As much as it wasn’t the most opportune thing at the time, it was actually one of the best learning experiences of my life so far.”
Question: Dean, did you watch Willie skate or work out? Was there anything that you needed to see, in person, to convince you to sign this contract?
LOMBARDI: “No, it was mostly the doctors. Having passed the league requirements and then having him talk to our own doctors, and it was pretty impressive the way he worked out on his own with us. We didn’t even ask him to do it. He went through the process on his own, again, showing the type of character that he has that makes him so attractive. Obviously we have a lot of discussions, internally, about concussions. It’s such a nebulous thing to nail down, but I guess it’s safe to say we had three checks and balances, and he did as well as you can do. I think the other thing that was really impressive about the way he did this was… I’s not easy with the teams, particularly with how highly we thought of him, in terms of his character and his fit, and for him to jeopardize July 1 and miss creating a frenzy — because I don’t think there’s any doubt that, if he’s out there on July 1, he’s a very attractive commodity — he didn’t do that.
“I’m not sure how many players would do that at this stage of their career. He took a very methodical process, and quite frankly did the right thing. `I’ve got to get myself totally healthy.’ So you really trusted him. To see him jeopardize other opportunities to go about it the right way, it also gives you more confidence that he really is symptom-free. And more importantly, we are getting a very special character player. I think the way he did it really made him attractive. I thought it was very professional, not only as an athlete but as a person.”
Question: Willie, you talked about when you were able to start working out. When were you just able to do stuff around the house? Get in the car, drive, all that type of thing.
MITCHELL: “Oh, right away.”
Question: You said this was your third concussion. Did you ever wonder if you were going to be able to play again?
MITCHELL: “I think I alluded to that earlier. I think anyone who has had a concussion, and been out for an extended period of time, that thought crosses your mind for a second. Tradition is that we have this protocol in the NHL. If you hurt a knee or a shoulder, it’s four weeks, six weeks. There’s not that protocol for a concussion. No one knows the answer. So yeah, if you go into a little longer period than usual, as a player with that type of injury, sure you have that thought. I think that’s all a part of the healing process of getting better. Once you get past those thoughts, you’re on your way to recovery.”
Question: Willie, you mentioned fit earlier. Could you be more specific? What made the Kings such a good fit for you?
MITCHELL: “Like I said, I just had that good feeling when I sat down with Dean and when I sat down with the coaching staff. The synergy was there, and I felt that it would be a good fit for myself and the team, and that it was a situation I would want to be in, with a great young team, up and coming. They have some great young defensemen, a good mix of defensemen in there. I think I can help their game, but I think they’re going to help my game a lot as well. Just because they’re younger players doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. That really intrigued me a lot, and as I said earlier, I thought it was genuine that they thought I could come in and help their hockey club and make a difference. That, for me, is a situation you want to be in. That’s what brings the best out of you, as an individual.”
Question: Dean, you mentioned that this move is independent of anything that was going on with Matt Greene, but going into the season, knowing that he might be out for the first month, are you comfortable going forward, that you can fill the rest of those spots internally, even if it’s with a guy or two who doesn’t have a lot of experience? Or might you look for any kind of another move to fill a spot?
LOMBARDI: “No. I think, given the caliber of this player, and the fit, I think this is huge for us. So no, I’m totally comfortable with our top five. Then you’ve got some kids like Drewiske breaking in, and we’ve got that slew coming behind him. I just think that the way Willie plays, it’s one of those situations where the coaches looked at him and everybody was on board, as far as what this player can bring to the team and how important he could be to this mix. John Stevens was talking about the impact of the veteran of this caliber, what it can do for the young players, like Timonen did for Coburn and Carle, that type of thing. It all comes together. I think I’m very comfortable with our mix right now. It was a huge hole. It was something that was obviously staring at us all summer, and it’s hard to imagine getting a perfect fit like this. His defensive skills are textbook, and I don’t think people appreciate, at times, the fact that he can make plays. He’s underrated in terms of his puck play. If you put that in the mix of our top four, it’s got a real nice blend to it, so I think we’re pretty comfortable right now.”
Question: I don’t know whether you want to defer this to Terry or not, but in your mind, do you have any thoughts about where he might fit among those top four? I presume you’d be looking at either a Doughty or Johnson pairing. Do you go in with any thoughts on that?
LOMBARDI: “Obviously Murph has to make that call, but certainly internally, that’s where a pillar like this fits, with a guy like Drew or even a guy like Jack, who, his game after the Olympics really went to another level. Like Scuderi, Willie, like I said, is underestimated with the puck. So that’s usually your traditional hockey mode, that pillar with the young puck-mover, but there are a number of options, too. You could also see, late in a game when you’re protecting a one-goal lead, him and Greener would be outstanding together. Or you go into some buildings that are a little tougher than usual, and you’ve got to shut someone down, you could see it going that way. He adds a lot to our arsenal, no question about it.”
Question: Going to two years on this deal, is that something you were pretty secure about from the beginning, or is that something that you thought about during the process? That seems like it might have been a big deal.
LOMBARDI: “There are certain players who, when you get into free agency, you’ve got to be aggressive. I think any time you get into free agency, there’s risks, and you’re balancing risks with what the payoff is. We felt so strongly about this player, whether it was personnel, management, coaches, that it’s worth the risk. There is risk with any player you sign. When we got Jarret Stoll, Jarret Stoll had already been through two concussions. So there was a risk there, but we haven’t had a problem. I signed Tony Granato in San Jose when Tony was coming off a brain aneurysm. I signed him to a three-year deal, and he went on and finished his career. Mike Ricci had a back that was supposed to be a disaster when I got him. So that was how strongly we felt, that we had to get aggressive here. You’re also dealing with a player whose character is beyond reproach, and you know that no matter what happens, he’s going to do everything he can, as a player, to fulfill his obligations without jeopardizing himself. I think that’s a big part of it, too. When you’re talking about players with risk, all of those guys that I talked about, whether it was Ricci or Stoll or Granato or a Willie Mitchell, these guys are all character guys, and sometimes you go out on a limb a little, but I think the payoff is way too big.”
Question: Willie, obviously you intend to stay injury-free, but have you had any conversations with doctors about the risks of another concussion?
MITCHELL: “No, I haven’t had that conversation. Since I started working out, obviously I’ve seen a lot of different people, and it’s not really a concern at all.”