Now that he’s returning once again to the general region of his alma mater, Clarkson University, it’s worth asking Willie Mitchell how a B.C. native decided to play college hockey 3,000 miles away from Vancouver Island.
As it unexpectedly turned out, he wanted to limit his recruiting visits because of a harrowing flying experience as a teenager.
“When I was 15, I had an engine stop on an airplane. It freaked me out. It kind of affects me to this day. I’m not a good flyer. It got better, but I’m not a great flyer. We had the whole emergency landing and stuff like that,” Mitchell said.
“I was recruited, and said ‘OK, I’m going to go do this,’ and I flew down there and back and had a good time. I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to go on four or five fly downs,’ because I’ve got to get on a plane four or five more times. So I said, ‘Oh, Clarkson University.’”
By playing in the small town of Potsdam, New York, he developed an excellent relationship with then-Clarkson assistant coach Ron Rolston, who now coaches the Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s funny how the world comes full circle. I’m pretty excited, pretty ecstatic for him,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had a few players who he coached during my couple years there that went on and turned pro – myself, Erik Cole, Chris Clark, Kent Huskins. So we had a few guys for a smaller school. To see Ron make it, it’s pretty cool. Lots of ties to Upstate New York, and my best friend in hockey,…Erik Cole, he’s Oswego, New York, [in] Upstate New York. So, lots here.”
Rolston described coaching Mitchell as a “great, great experience,” and has been impressed by the adjustments the 36-year-old veteran blueliner has made to his game since moving on from Clarkson.
“He was a terrific player, really worked hard at his game,” Rolston said. “When you have players like that, it is certainly a pleasure to work with them.”
“It is great to see his career and what he has done, and I think he has continued to evolve in his game, which is a good lesson for all young players. Early at Clarkson he was a big presence, but he was actually a lot more of an offensive player at that level and created a lot of offense for us because he had the skill level. But he got to the pro game and he’s evolved his game into one of the best defenders in the league. I think a large part of that was starting in New Jersey and going through with Jacque Lemaire and Larry Robinson, and that coaching core…helped his game. And then he has obviously taken a lot of responsibility in getting better in those areas and he’s won a Stanley Cup. And I thought he was one of the best defensemen in the league in that Stanley Cup Final. His ability to shut people down [is] so very valuable.”