Finally, the Kings’ Willie Mitchell makes it
For Willie Mitchell, it has been nine years since he just missed out on the chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final, and two years since his hockey-playing future was in serious doubt because of a lingering concussion.
So what’s another week of waiting for the Cup puck to drop? That may seem like an interminable amount of time for some of his younger Kings teammates, but not for the 35-year-old defenseman.
Rest is embraced, not rejected, by the team’s “over-35 crowd,” Mitchell said. Of course, he is the Kings’ sole member of that club, and he joked about it, saying: “I put my foot in my mouth there, I guess.”
Mitchell will be playing in his first Stanley Cup Final, which will open Wednesday with the Kings playing either the New York Rangers or the New Jersey Devils. If it’s the Devils, it will be a homecoming of sorts for Mitchell, because that team originally drafted him with its 12th choice (199th overall) in 1993. Nine years ago, in his second full NHL season with Minnesota, Mitchell advanced as far as the Western Conference finals, but the Wild was swept by the Ducks.
So when Kings teammate Dustin Penner scored the series-clinching goal in overtime in Game 5 against the Phoenix Coyotes, Mitchell said the feeling was “surreal.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said Thursday in El Segundo. “I was fortunate to be out on the ice when Big Pens scored. Some guys were jumping. I was just sitting there. I was like, ‘Is this happening?’ So I feel fortunate to get this chance and get the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup for real.”
The long wait was compounded by his concussion history. He was limited to 48 games with the Vancouver Canucks in the 2009-10 season and wondered about his hockey career and health. Those concerns eased by the time he signed with the Kings as a free agent in the summer of 2010.
“As a kid you play how many road-hockey games playing for it,” Mitchell said of the Stanley Cup. “I’m just going to enjoy it. I had a time there where I didn’t know if hockey was going to even going to continue for that matter. So I think at this time of year, after going through that, it allows me to enjoy it that much more.”
Mitchell has been one of team’s most overlooked players in its 12-2 drive through the first three rounds. He is playing the second-most minutes on the team — 24:42 a night, just behind Drew Doughty‘s team-leading 25:32 — and has been helping first-year Russian defenseman Slava Voynov make the transition from the minors.
Voynov needed to take on a more significant role after the Kings traded Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a deal that netted Jeff Carter. Voynov and Mitchell are a combined plus-11 in the playoffs thus far.
After hockey, there could be a future in comedy for Penner, who is the master of the droll one-liner. Asked about the run of emotion in the handshake line after the end of the series Tuesday, he mentioned that the Coyotes’ Antoine Vermette had some words for him.
“I got chirped in line too,” Penner said. “For my headlock I put on Vermette in Game 2. He went on to rehash that. I was a little surprised.”
So did Penner respond?
“‘I don’t have time to talk right now about this,’” he said, inventing dialogue from the handshake line. “I’ve got a flight to catch.’ … We didn’t exchange PIN numbers.”
Penner’s contract expires this season and his play in the playoffs — 10 points in 14 games — probably will enhance his value, if he makes it to the open market in July.
Kings Coach Darryl Sutter spent part of his coaching career in hockey-mad Calgary, where he led the Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final and the community was immersed in hockey for a two-month period. But he was impressed when the Kings wrapped up the Coyotes series two nights ago that about 4,000 hard-core fans turned up at the airport to greet them.
“It’s always good, right? Middle of the night for them, I hope they all remember it,” Sutter said.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.