WILLIE MITCHELL: Florida's captain talks about the pain of not playing and his responsibility to his teammates
NEW YORK -- Florida Panthers defenseman and captain Willie Mitchell spoke on the record with the South Florida media (and Canada's Sportsnet) for the first time in months Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn.
Sidelined after suffering what he told Sportsnet was his seventh concussion in January, Mitchell has been working on and off the ice with his teammates for the past month or so.
Doctors have warned Mitchell of the long-term affects of another concussion but the Panthers have said it's his decision whether or not he returns to the ice.
It appears he has chosen his long-term health over playing hockey.
That doesn't mean he's not involved with this Florida team.
Far from it.
Here is what Mitchell -- who celebrated his 39th birthday with his teammates in New York on Saturday -- had to say in a very candid and pointed interview.
It must be noted, Mitchell didn't want to talk about his current situation (although he did, at length) and didn't come out and say he wasn't coming back. He said that talk would come at the end of the season -- which he hopes is "around June 20th or so."
FLORIDA CAPTAIN WILLIE MITCHELL
-- On being with his teammates, participating in practices and all on-ice activities save for playing in games:
"I don't want to be rude, but I don't totally want to talk about my situation out of respect for these guys. I don't want to be a distraction before such an important game tonight.
"I leave it at this: Obviously I haven't been able to get out there and it's really, really [expletive] hard to be honest with you -- and I'll use that term, I don't care. It's quite emotional. I'm just trying to keep myself busy and ... I'm not a quitter and have never quit on anything in my life. So, with my situation, I'm just trying to see it through I guess you could say. I'm trying to be a good teammate behind the scenes. Take some pressure off these guys, do things they may have to do themselves.
"This organization, some of these guys have never been here before and there are some hockey ops, day-to-day things this time of year I try to take care of to take the pressure off them to play a game for the real deal, Lord Stanley's Cup.
"We all grew up playing road hockey, front sidewalk or street; this is what it's all about. It's the reward for all the hard work, all the summers. It's hard. Lots of ups-and-downs, getting cut from teams, whatever. This is the reward, enjoying this time of year. I'm trying to help that way. Guys who aren't playing work hard, they push. I'm not a passenger out there, I'm trying to bust my ass and push them to get better and talk about my experiences a little bit. I've played a lot of playoff hockey and some pretty big damned games and I talk about that.
"I feel that way, it takes my mind off not being out there. The more I stay busy ...
-- On whether he'll give an impassioned speech before Game 6
"No, this is not the time. When you're down 3-2, you don't push the panic button and start giving speeches and stuff. Individually, when you give speeches like that, it is a panic button. Have a lunch, have a dinner and talk to guys about not only teams you've been on, but team's you've seen. It's not about that team, it's about this team. You chat about those things.
"I talk to guys on the penalty kill a lot because that's a specialty of mine over the years., talk about what it takes this time of year. The last two games we have done that. It's a seven-game series. The first few games were run-and-gun and that's not us. We're one of the better defensive teams in the league. ...
"The rest of the [BS] I'll get into with you guys hopefully around June 20th. Who knows, right? Who knows, who knows. Things change. Now is now and I'm on the outside looking in. Things change in life."
-- On the challenge of playing until June 20th
"This time of year is kind of my time of year. That part kind of eats you up a bit. I've been lucky; I've had the big skate, had the big summer -- twice. There's a couple of guys .. Roberto, I look in his eyes every day and know how much he wants that. I'm a good friend of his and that's my motivation, to see that guy win. That guy wants nothing more than to win the Stanley Cup.
"I try to make the guys aware of the moment they are in, the opportunity. We have a really good hockey team here, we're getting healthy, Trocheck is back.
"Don't leave anything on the table. We've played hard, but I think we have one more gear. I think you're going to see that tonight. It's going to take that. Long Island knows that, knows that you have to get [win] four. You get nothing for three. My old coach used to say that out west, 'you get nothing for three.' And it's true, right? You get nothing. It takes four, right? We have to stay in the moment because we're a young team and it's this; when you win, that's what you're supposed to do."
-- The feeling of seeing young guys like Matheson and Petrovic stepping up
"Those guys have played really strong games. Petrovic has an up-and-down year at times, but he's 23-24, whatever. He's young. I remember cracking into the league when I was 22 and forwards make mistakes and no one notices. It's 3-on-2 and if Petrovic doesn't have his skate down, it's Petro's fault. No. But his heavy game suits this time of year. I couldn't be more proud of him. We were sitting around the house talking about the playoffs and I told him he was going to score a big goal. He's got a great shot. He was tickled pink. Hopefully he scores a few more although that's not his game. This time of year you need guys who score at the right time.
-- On his love for this team
"Yeah, yeah I do. I've enjoyed my time. You guys don't know me that well but ... I remember shaking hands with our owner at West Point Academy and talking about being captain of this team. He looked at me in the eye and I looked him in the eye. He just said 'I know you're going to do the right thing with his bunch' and that's what I pride myself on, my integrity and my word.
"That's why I try to do everything possible -- I'm sure I've done a lot of things wrong -- but I'm trying to make sure I pass on some knowledge I've had from some great teachers whether it's Lemaire or Robinson, Suter is a pretty darned good coach over there, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer. I could go on and on. ...
"I'm passing it on to these guys like it was passed on to me. I'm trying to do that.
"And learning. I learned so much from an 18-year-old [Aaron Ekblad] who lived with me on how to play the game. Not how to eat, he has a sweet tooth. But on how to shoot the puck and things like that. I try to stay engaged with these guys and win. It's kind of nice being the underdog. I remember last year, 'the mighty Florida Panthers.' Well, we haven't accomplished anything but we've gotten to this next season. It's hard. Fourteen good teams went home. But we're stepping, stepping, stepping. Here we've run into another good team trying to do the same thing, take that next step. We have two teams trying to make their own identity, get their own identity back.
"It's been tough, but that's how I've been trying to help out in any way I can. We're marching forward."