Yesterday, I posted a link to my feature on new Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell. I figured I would post the full interview that I did with Mitchell, because there’s some interesting stuff in here that, for the sake of brevity, didn’t make its way into the feature. Here’s the full transcript…
Question: I was taken by the way, during your conference call, your referred to the concussion and your recovery as almost a blessing. You called it a great learning experience. Could you expand on that a little, and maybe talk about how you came to see it so positively?
MITCHELL: “I did a lot of things to get healthy when I was out, and I was actually in a hyperbaric chamber. I watched movies, DVDs. stuff like that. And there was kind of a motivational CD called `Maverick Mindsets’ that talked about the mindset in sports, and controlling the things that you can control. It’s funny how it was sitting on my countertop and I never touched it. Then something like this happens to you, and it’s like, `Well, I’ve got time to kill in this chamber, so I’m going to listen to it.’ It was probably one of the best things I’ve ever picked up in my life, in terms of it being a life lesson but also in being an athlete like I am. A lot of it was talking about controlling the things that you can control and not worrying about all the external factors that ultimately, at the end of the day, you have no bearing over.
“When you have a concussion, obviously you get hit in the head and you have a headache. The toughest thing about it as that you care a lot — which I do, I love hockey — and you want to help your team out. So what do you do? You stress, and therefore what does that give you? A headache, and that’s the one thing you’re trying to overcome. So it’s just about controlling the things you can control. What I could control during that whole process were the things I was doing to get healthy. The rest of those things, I had absolutely no control over. That’s been a blessing, in terms of getting healthy and getting through the injury, and I think it’s going to be a blessing in terms of my performance on the ice. Sometimes you might think, `Oh, what was my defense partner doing there?’ or `What were we doing there?’ At the end of the day, I’ve got no control over that. All I have is control over what I’m doing on the ice. If you worry about other things, I think you expend more of your energy away from what you should be doing. If you worry about the things you’re doing, you become a better hockey player. That’s the big lesson I learned, and not to take stuff for granted.
“We all, at this time of the year, usually everyone is hemming and hawing about, `Oh we’ve got testing and we’ve got all this at the start of the year.’ Heck, I went through a lot of testing a month ago, just to show teams that I’m fine. Usually when I do that testing, I’m like, `Oh, God, I’ve got to do this testing.’ Doing it this time, it was like, `Oh yeah, baby, let’s get it on.’ You take that for granted, right? You take your health for granted. You take everything for granted. In life, sometimes, it’s not until you’re pushed into a corner or dealt a tough situation… You don’t learn things in life when things are going well. You only learn when things aren’t going as planned. That’s when you learn the most in life. I think this experience was one of the best learning experiences of my life. Early on, it wasn’t the best situation, that’s for sure, but it turned out to be one of the best learning experiences.”
Question: My guess is that, when you go through something like a brain injury, a concussion, your thoughts can go one of two ways. You can either start to see hockey as something small, not as important in terms of your quality of life, or you can start to really value every minute you have on the ice. Did you feel either of those emotions, or maybe both at times?
MITCHELL: “You’re absolutely right, you think about both of those things. Obviously it’s a game that we play. We’re paid very well to play it, but it’s still a game, so you think about life after hockey and you want to make sure that you’re not taking chances that are going to affect that. There’s a lot of life to live after. I think it’s widely known how I went about my decision-making this summer. That was a thought of mine. I didn’t do things the conventional way. Some people might not like that, but I think a lot of people respected it. I did that so I knew I would be healthy and ready and so that when it came time to make that decision, and know mentally that I was ready to play hockey again, that I went through all the right hurdles. Now I know what I want to do and what the team that signed me wants me to do. That’s the mindset I was in, and I’m really looking forward to it. To be honest, I put in a lot of time, a lot of work. It’s been a bit of a long road, but I just can’t wait to get back on the ice. I’ve been on the ice, obviously, with other players and peers at this time of the year, but I want to be on the ice when the game is on the line.”
Question: You talked, during the conference call, about the Kings feeling like the right fit for you. Is there anything in particular, from the meetings that you had with coaches and management, that grabbed you, that made you feel like Los Angeles was where you wanted to play?
MITCHELL: “I went on visits to talk to different teams, mostly because of my health. That’s why I wanted to go around, to show teams that I would go and work out, so that they’re just not hearing, over the phone, me saying, `Hey, I’m healthy.’ I wanted to show them. I went in and did all that stuff. So everyone is recruiting you, so to speak, and trying to put a good spin on their organization. But sometimes you just get that feeling, that they’re genuine and that they really think you can help their hockey club out a lot, and that they like the things that you can do as a player. I really got that feeling from Dean and the coaching staff. I felt that they respected my game. My game is much different than a lot of people see, in the sense that a lot of what I do hopefully goes unnoticed. Sometimes it goes unnoticed, but what I do is play against the best players in the world and keep them off the scoresheet. That’s what I do. I’ve done that my whole career. I take a lot of pride in that. I love that challenge. If I can keep, say, Joe Thornton off the score sheet — and that’s tough to do, obviously, when you’re in power-play situations — but if I can keep him off the score sheet at even strength, in 23 minutes, 24 minutes, I like our team’s chances. If I can keep a 40-goal scorer off the score sheet, I consider that to be like scoring 40 goals.
“In my meeting down there, I felt like they really respected what I do, the little things that I do. Sometimes those aren’t things that show up on the score sheet, but I like to think that the things I do are things that my peers, my teammates, respect. I felt that the coaching staff and Dean really respected that. Like I said, you just get that feeling where you really think that you can be a big piece of their team, and that’s where you want to be as a player. As a player, you want to be in a situation where they think you can help make a difference on their hockey club, to get better. You want to be in that situation. I like the pressure. I want to be a player who comes in and can help make a difference. That’s what it’s all about. The ultimate, for me, is winning the Stanley Cup and being one of the guys who is a difference-maker. That’s the feeling that I got. The opportunity to play with a couple of the young defensemen, who are great up-and-coming players, is exciting. I think that’s a great fit. I think there are some things that I can do on the ice to help evolve their games, and I think the things that they can do on the ice will actually help evolve my game. I just turned 33, but whoever you are — player, coach, GM — you never stop learning. There are a lot of good fits. That, to me, was really intriguing. I met Tim Leiweke and heard about their commitment to the organization and what they want to do, and win. That, to me, is really exciting.”
Question: Do you know who the oldest defenseman on the Kings’ roster is?
MITCHELL: “(laughs) Let’s see. OD is gone. There are the two young guys, Scuderi from Pittsburgh… It’s probably me, at 33, right?”
Question: Yeah, it’s you.
MITCHELL: “Yeah, the old boy. OD is gone, Sean O’Donnell is gone, but I’m a lot younger than OD. That’s funny. I just turned 33, this is going to be my 33-year-old season, and it’s like I’m the old guy. What’s going on here? (laughs) The game has changed with the CBA, a little bit. You have younger teams, but I think there’s something to guys who can bring experience. I’ve been fortunate to be around some great, great minds in the game. I was coached by Jacques Lemaire, by Larry Robinson, and I thank God that I was lucky enough to listen to those guys. They’re great, great minds. I played with Scotty Stevens and (Scott) Niedermayer, and I think I learned a lot of things from those great players and great minds. I hope to maybe help out in that capacity a little bit with some of the young players on this team.”
Question: You were an alternate captain in Vancouver. How would you describe your leadership style? Defensemen who play your type of game tend to get stereotyped as the quiet, lead-by-example guys. Can you talk about how you view leadership, both on and off the ice?
MITCHELL: “I don’t know. That’s a tough one. I don’t think you strive to go be a leader. I think that comes to you. If people look at your in that magnitude, that’s flattering and that’s great, and obviously there’s some responsibility that comes with that. I think that respect, like I said, is earned, not given. I think when you come into a new team, I just want to go down there and do the things that I have done so far in my career that have made me successful. If that gets me the respect of the organization and my teammates, then great. I like to think that I play the game hard, I compete, I love the game. More than anything, I love it. I like to have a good time. When you see me, I smile all the time. I love what I do. It’s therapeutic for me on the ice. I go out there, and that’s my special place. I don’t think, I just play. I enjoy the game, I love the game. Some people, I remember Jacques Lemaire originally thought I was having too much fun, but he ended up figuring me out and thinking, `This guy just loves the game.’ I like to think I know when it’s time to get serious and turn the switch. For me, the national anthems, that’s when I turn my switch, and it’s on.
“The off-ice stuff, that’s tough to comment on, as a player. Like I said, I like to think that I’ve been coached by some very, very good people who have been in the game for a long, long time and are Hall of Famers on a playing level and a coaching level. I think I’ve learned some great information from those guys. I’m just going to go down there and fit in. They’ve got a good leadership group down there, and I’m just going to come in and do the things that I’ve done for the last four years in Vancouver and the same thing I did when I was in Minnesota for five years. I’ll just do that and try to fit in, and if that becomes a part of the equation, so be it. As a player, I’ve been in some situations, and it’s a younger team in L.A. Sometimes it’s nice to have a guy come in, who has been in those situations before, to be a little bit of a calming presence. In those situations, I like to think that when the pressure is on, I’m a calm and composed player. Hopefully I can continue to do that in L.A. and help my teammates that way.”
Question: How many years were you an alternate captain in Vancouver?
MITCHELL: “Three years or two years. I’m not even sure. The first year I came in, the leadership group was obviously Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden and Brendan Morrison. I think it was two years. But really, to be honest with you, in terms of leadership, I played with so many guys who didn’t wear letters, but they were the best leaders around. I don’t think you need a letter on your jersey to be a leader. In Vancouver we had a guy, Ryan Johnson, who I think was one of the best leaders I played with. He was a character guy, but he never had a letter. So I don’t think you need a letter in order to be a leader. I think a leader just becomes one, because your peers look toward you. That, for me, is what it’s about.”