Willie Mitchell returns to NHL action in an exhibition game in Denver Friday night against the Colorado Avalanche after he was sidelined with a troublesome knee injury for 15 months.
At 36, the thoughtful Los Angeles Kings defenceman could have packed it in. A concussion kept him out of hockey for second-half of the 2009-10 season and the entire playoffs. He has won a Stanley Cup championship. In fact, the last time he played in a meaningful game was when the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils, and Mitchell was overcome by emotion.
He injured his knee last fall and underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean out the problematic area in early December. After several attempts to make a comeback in the 2013 lockout-shortened season, the decision was made to get a second opinion.
So the day after he accompanied the Kings to their White House visit as the reigning Stanley Cup champions, he flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. It was determined there, on April Fool's Day, that he needed a second arthroscopic knee surgery, this time performed by Dr. Michael Stuart, the father of Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart.
A few days later, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi proclaimed that Mitchell would miss the rest of the season and expressed concern about his player's long-term outlook.
Mitchell, of Port McNeill, B.C., was kind enough to provide an oral history of his ordeal on the eve of his comeback.
"All this really didn't start until late October, early November of the lockout. In the summer it was business as usual, doing your summer training and stuff like that. Then I started to get some knee pain when I was working out and it gradually progressed. I found out I had a meniscus tear.
'Every game counts'
"I ended up getting a procedure done. No one knows for sure, but I rushed it for sure because the lockout had ended and the season was about to get started. We had Matt Greene go down on defence [with season-ending back injury in late January]. It was a shortened season. Every game counts. We wanted to go back-to-back. So I tried to press myself to get back in there, myself and the team.
"At that point and time I kept trying to comeback, but the knee kept getting inflammation. So it was time to get a second set of eyes on it. We went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I had Dr. Stuart perform a second procedure. With that done and proper rest, I also worked with [renowned Los Angeles-based sports physical therapist Dr.] John Meyer, who has worked with Kobe Bryant when he had his knee issues.
"I committed myself after getting all this help, seeing the best. I also had an alternative treatment [Orthokine] you have probably read about."
Orthokine is a treatment, in which an athlete's blood is removed, spun in a filter to extract platelet-rich plasma, then mixed with other substances and injected back into the athlete's damaged area.
"All those things has helped me progress to where I am, and here I am. It definitely wasn't as bad as the concussion because a concussion is your brain, man. It affects your life in every aspect. I've always said you tell your brain to answer the phone, it answers the phone. You tell it to write a story, it writes a story. The brain is amazing.
"As much as this wasn't fun, it was controllable on an emotional level. Sure, it affected me a bit in my day-to-day life. It also affected my ability to play hockey and I love hockey. I wasn't ready to be done, especially after the year we had. To win a Stanley Cup is the ultimate. You get a taste of that and you want to do it again.
"The worst part was watching, and watching my teammates play so well, all things considering. We ran into a hot team [Kings lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in a five-game West final]. Of course, you think that if you were in the lineup I could help out a little bit. Whether I would have or not, who knows?
"That was the toughest part. Now it's been gratifying to put in the work and get ready. I could have gone back to B.C. in the summer, spent some time on the water and done some rehab on my own. But I made the commitment to stay in California and work with John. That way if something went wrong you didn't want to look in the rear view window and said 'could've, would've, should've.' I wanted to put it all on the table and if things didn't go wrong it would have been on to the next chapter in life.
"I was okay with not playing hockey again, but I wasn't ready for hockey to be done. So here we are.
"Ultimately, we all judged as pro athletes on whether or not we win the Stanley Cup. You don't sign up at the beginning of the season and hope you have a good season. You want to win the Stanley Cup. I had a really good year in Vancouver one year, but it didn't end the way I wanted it to. I didn't have a good playoff after a really good regular season. The last season I had, 14-15 months ago, was probably my best season from start to finish.
"That's also part of the reason you want to continue to play. When you're playing your best hockey and you're enjoying the game - yes, I still have some hurdles here to clear, but I have made it through a rigorous week of training camp. The next step is to play in Colorado [on Friday]. I've done everything methodically here and haven't rushed it this time.
"It will be really rewarding for me. I don't have anything to prove. I'm doing this for myself and for my teammates. We still have an outstanding team here and we're in a good situation here for another run. That fuels me. We all take pride in what we do. I'm not going to lie and say that I don't want to have a good year so I can say 'haha' to all those people who doubted me and said I wouldn't be back after this. But I'm doing this for me, first, and my teammates, second.
"I'm crossing my fingers. I'm sure so are Dean and [head coach] Darryl [Sutter]. But I've put in the work and hopefully all will continue to go well here."
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