They bestowed the name Xanyadzam.
The tiny ’Namgis First Nation of remote Alert Bay welcomed the return of an adopted son on Sunday afternoon. Willie Mitchell, the stalwart Los Angeles Kings defenceman who helped his team win the Stanley Cup two months ago, grew up in nearby Port McNeill and brought hockey’s hallowed trophy to the dense forests of northern Vancouver Island.
The Stanley Cup, created in 1893, has never seen any thing quite like the Big House in Alert Bay. The trophy’s travels have been legion: a child has been baptized in the cup; Mark Messier once brought it to an Edmonton strip club; it has visited Afghanistan several times in recent years – and along the way has sunk to the bottom of at least two swimming pools.
Cedar burned in a fire pit at the centre of the sand ground of the Big House on Sunday and the building shook; drumming, clapping, cheers, hundreds of people in traditional dress, people Mr. Mitchell calls “diehard hockey fans.” The cup had already been revered on Sunday morning at the small hockey rink in Port McNeill where Mr. Mitchell played as a boy, holding an estimated 6,000 or so fans in a town of 2,500.
At the Big House, the cup in a position of honour below magnificent totems topped by eagles, Chief Bill Cranmer bestowed the name Xanyadzam on Mr. Mitchell, a rare honour for an outsider. It means “truly special person.”
Mr. Mitchell, in traditional headdress, danced with young ’Namgis athletes to complete the ceremony.
“I feel a connection,” Mr. Mitchell – a former Vancouver Canucks player – told the crowd. “Because I’m someone who enjoys the environment, enjoys the land, likes our resources, the fish, the salmon, the whales. I feel a connection. That’s my therapy.”
The voluble 35-year-old hockey player has been politically active in recent years. Since he was a boy, Mr. Mitchell fished the Kokish River near Port McNeill, famous for its summer steelhead run. He used his name to oppose a controversial hydroelectric power project on the Kokish – which is backed by the ’Namgis – but it was approved in the spring.
Mr. Mitchell has supported the ’Namgis as they build an on-land fish farm in an attempt to prove the viability of raising fish on land rather than in the open water, where diseases can be passed on and kill wild sockeye salmon.
These are only some of the threads of an unlikely story. Port McNeill was started as a tent camp for logging in the 1930s and became a town in 1966, population 437. The hockey rink is barely older than Mr. Mitchell, built in the late 1970s. Hockey talent runs in the Mitchell blood: Grandfather Les, today 85, had a training-camp tryout for the New York Rangers in 1948 in the Original Six days of the National Hockey League.
“It’s unreal,” Les Mitchell said of his grandson bringing the cup home. “All hockey players dream of winning it.”
After arriving by helicopter in the field near the arena in Port McNeill, Mr. Mitchell hoisted the cup aloft and carried it in to the modest venue where he would skate every lunch hour as a kid. He was welcomed by Gerry Furney, owner of a local drug store and mayor since the mid-1970s before Mr. Mitchell was born. Aug. 12 was declared Willie Mitchell Day, but it was for many more than just one hockey player.
“Behind each player is a family, a team, a community,” said Mr. Furney, an Irishman by birth and poet in his spare time.
Underlying it all is what might have been. Mr. Mitchell dreamed as a boy of playing for the Vancouver Canucks. His dad, Reid, worked as a mechanic at Western Forest Products, and Christmas presents were often a hockey stick and a trip to the big city for a Canucks game. In 2006, Mr. Mitchell’s dream came true, and he played for the team for four seasons. But by 2010, still suffering from a rough concussion, he ended up in Los Angeles.
He watched his former teammates nearly win the trophy in 2011. Then, this past spring, the Kings upset the Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. In the finals against the New Jersey Devils, Mr. Mitchell was central to victory, on the ice the second-most of any player.
When Mr. Mitchell joined the L.A. Kings, his heart “was still in Vancouver,” he said in an interview last week before bringing the cup home. Beating Vancouver was somewhat bittersweet, shaking hands after the game was over with friends he had wanted to hoist the cup with not long ago.
But the soaring memory of lifting it after the Kings won, the second player to hold it high, is a kaleidoscope of everything that came before, all the work, his parents’ sacrifices, all the love from everyone on the north island.
“You hold it for 10, 15 seconds,” Mr. Mitchell remembered. “It feels like 30 years.”