Thornton, Mitchell believe off-ice relationships are crucial to Panthers success
Entering their first season with the Florida Panthers, Willie Mitchell and Shawn Thornton already know what it takes to win in the NHL.
With a combined four Stanley Cups and 20-plus professional seasons between them, the veteran duo now looks to establish a new winning tradition with one of the league’s most forlorn franchises — a process they believe starts off the ice.
"I’ve been fortunate enough to be on winning teams, and I know on a winning team that guys hang out together. Guys have a good time together off the ice and are tight and close," said Mitchell, who signed a two-year deal with the Panthers on July 1.
Establishing a tight-knit group among Panthers players hasn’t been easy in recent years. In the midst of an organizational overhaul, spearheaded by general manager Dale Tallon, the team has endured significant roster overhauls nearly every season since 2010.
If you’re in need of a sign of the times, look no further than defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who remains as the only player on the current roster from before Tallon’s arrival.
Announced as the eighth captain in franchise history on Monday, Mitchell’s short-lived stint as the new guy in the locker room has come to an early end. Now, he will be looked at more than ever as a centralized voice and source of leadership both on and off the ice.
Not alone in this endeavor, Mitchell expects fellow veterans such as Thornton, Brian Campbell and Dave Bolland to all help cultivate camaraderie in the locker room.
Thornton, who also signed a two-year deal with Florida this summer, has been, according to Mitchell, one of the players at the forefront of the Panthers togetherness movement.
"I think (Thornton) has been doing a really good job with it," Mitchell said of reaching out to players. "We’re all trying to be guys who come in and worry about our own game and getting to the proper level but we also want to come in and create a tight group where guys are chumming and hanging out and going to bat for each other. We’re going to try and have some dinners, hangout and get a feel for guys."
As Thornton will admit, however, bringing together 23 guys isn’t always the easiest process. And although many players may find it hard to break from their own established routines, he still insists that text messages will always be sent and invitations will remain open.
"I think it helps create winning," Thornton said of off-ice relationships among teammates. "I don’t think it happens right away just like winning teams don’t happen right away. I think it’s a process and it’s probably different everywhere you go on how quick that process happens.
"Every team that I’ve been on has been very close and wanted to play for each other, not just with each other. I think that’s one of the keys of having success. I’m not 100-percent sure what it was like here in the past, but we would definitely like to start trying to create that here. We’ve got a great bunch of guys here."
This past week, both Mitchell and Thornton were given an early opportunity to break the ice with their new teammates as the Panthers traveled to the United States Military Academy at West Point where they participated in three days of training and team bonding.
While in Los Angeles, Mitchell says that preseason excursions such as this were a vital part of the team’s preparation for every season. At the time, Mitchell and his Kings teammates would travel to co-owner Phillip Anschutz’s ranch just outside Denver, Colo., to celebrate the end of training camp.
Making the trip "on their own dollar", Mitchell said he and his teammates would bond over hours of golfing, shooting and various other activities before returning to Los Angeles to face the grind of an 82-game NHL season.
Preseason experiences like this, paired with continued gatherings throughout the regular season, Mitchell says, will go a long way in helping the Panthers build a cohesive, winning locker room.
"It kind of lets the guard down early on," said Mitchell. "It’s especially important when you’ve got young guys coming in and you’ve got older guys coming in as a new mix of players. I think it’ll actually be great and I’m looking forward to it. I think the guys are too. Get to know each other a little bit more and create that cohesiveness as a group.
"It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing two minutes or 25 minutes, the guy who’s playing two is just as important on a championship team as the 25 guy, so you want everyone to feel a part of it."
As they enter the twilight of their affluent careers, both Mitchell and Thornton consider themselves living proof as to how big an affect accessible veterans and a welcoming environment can have on younger players.
Reflecting on the earliest years of his career with the New Jersey Devils, Mitchell cracked a smile as he divulged a laundry list of former players he still calls "rock stars" that made him feel accepted as a rookie.
"Randy McKay, Lyle Odelein, they’d grab me all the time and say, ‘Hey, lets go for dinner,’" Mitchell said. "It was good because it made you feel a part of things. When you’re a young guy and you’re coming in, you want to feel a part of it. When you feel a part of it, you get your confidence. And when you get your confidence, you’re the player that you want to be and supposed to be."