LOS ANGELES — Before the Los Angeles Kings’ first game of the 2013-14 NHL season, the last time Willie Mitchell had been on any ice at all he was hoisting the Stanley Cup.
And then… Nothing.
One of the toughest defensemen in the game, he suffered from concussions and now says he lost nearly a year of his life being plagued by the residual effects. When the concussions didn’t take him out, it was the broken vertebrae that could have, but didn’t.
Mitchell finally won a Stanley Cup in 2012 but following the parade, the fanfare and, of course, the lockout, the then-36-year-old defenseman and his array of old injuries weren’t sure if he would ever skate in another NHL game.
"There’s a question mark of whether or not you’re going to play hockey again," Mitchell said. "You kind of always want your career to end on your terms and if you have a severe injury that could end it no one wants that so you do everything in your power to make sure you get back."
His career isn’t over and neither is his bid at a second Stanley Cup with the Kings. Mitchell returned this season and was as effective as ever, despite being the oldest player on the team. He still hits just as hard as he did a few years ago and his partner on the ice, Slava Voynov, looks like a different player next Mitchell, elevating his game to another level next to the veteran.
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To get back to this level and to the Cup Final as well, he needed a combination of the right rehab and the right mindset.
For the rehab part, Mitchell took a page from the book of another prominent Los Angeles athlete: Kobe Bryant. Dr. John Meyer had a busy summer in El Segundo, helping the Lakers star repair his ruptured achilles and while helping Mitchell heal his injured knee after two surgeries.
"I think anytime your knee kind of goes through that trauma it takes a while for them to say, ‘OK, this is OK for you to start biking and running or skating and doing all of those things,’ " he said. "I thought we did a few different things, like Kobe went over to Germany and did Regenokine Therapy and they’ve got that in New York, L.A. and I think there’s one in Dallas now. So I did it here, and I think that in combination with the rehab I did was a big part of my knee getting back to normal."
The physical part of the rehab plan was easy to execute. The mental part may not have been had he not suffered his "brain injury" (Mitchell says the term concussion doesn’t give the ailment a true identity), he may never have ben able to mentally recuperate from the knee injury.
"It’s a little different emotional journey, I guess you could say, that helped me navigate this much better," Mitchell said. "Your brain is everything. Right now, you’re asking me a question and you tell your brain to answer the question. With a knee, it’s a little different.
"Of course, no one wants to have a knee replacement or stuff like that but it’s a little different, you can still function as a human being. You just have a bad knee. If you don’t have your brain, you have nothing."
His concussion took him out of another playoff run with the Canucks in 2010. A hometown British Columbia boy from nearby Port McNeill, he was counted on to help Vancouver to a Cup and felt powerless when he was unable to play in the postseason. The effects lingered on throughout the offseason.
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"I went out up in the middle of nowhere and started walking in the outdoors," he said. "Up and down a river and just out where you hear birds chirping and it’s kind of like its own therapy and that’s when it started getting better."
Mitchell became one of the game’s biggest advocates for concussion research. He openly talks about the brain running as a computer program and the simple, everyday functions that can’t quite compute when the brain is injured.
But more importantly, he began looking at his life and his career in a much different light. He quit feeling sorry for himself. It could have been worse, he thought, he could have been battling cancer. His knee and the rehab process, the muscle injury he suffered during this year’s Freeway Faceoff round of the playoffs and the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup run all look and feel much different to Mitchell.
"I owe a lot to my teammates because I had a muscle pull earlier in the playoffs and I had a Game 7 where I’m sitting underneath with my coffee watching the game on TV and not out there. The guys won that and gave me an opportunity to be back up here and play last the last round and be a part of this now," he said. "I think anytime where you kind of feel like your life has changed for good, or you think it’s going to be changed for good, and you get out the other side, your life changes a lot on multiple levels…