On Saturday, the Los Angeles Kings’ first day back at work after a lengthy break, the stereo was blaring inside the dressing room at their practice facility, the Toyota Sports Center. Defenceman Willie Mitchell was coming off the ice, to the sounds of the Steve Miller Band playing their 1976 hit Take the Money and Run.
“Careful,” cautioned Mitchell, as a wide grin spread across his face. Mitchell, at 35, is the Kings’ senior citizen – born in 1977 – and he has been having some fun at his own expense about his age, playing as he does on the NHL’s second-youngest team. He and Rob Scuderi are the only thirtysomething regulars on a Kings team that will open the Stanley Cup final Wednesday against the New Jersey Devils. While the rest of his teammates are chafing about the eight days between games, Mitchell figured it was good for his old bones to have the time off.
These are heady days for Mitchell, the Port McNeil, B.C., native, who joined the Kings two years ago as an unrestricted free agent. He is fully recovered from the concussion that undermined the last of his four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, a team the Kings eliminated in the opening round. He is about to make the first Stanley Cup final appearance of his 12-year NHL career and – as luck would have it – it comes against the same New Jersey organization that drafted him 199th overall in 1996 and gave him his start in professional hockey.
“It’s like coming full circle for me,” Mitchell said. “It’s a unique and special opportunity, my first time in the Cup final and I’m kind of enjoying the moment.”
Mitchell played two seasons for Clarkson College, and then two years in the Devils’ organization – 18 games in New Jersey, the rest for their American Hockey League affiliate in Albany, N.Y. But Mitchell was in the Devils lineup in October of 2000, when they raised the banner to celebrate the second of their three Stanley Cup championships. Mitchell remembers that he and Turner Stevenson as the new guys, “sort of sitting off the pile, because we didn’t do anything. I remember watching that and thinking how cool it was, and wondering what it took to win.
“Now, here I am, hopefully learning from those great experiences and having an opportunity to get a kick at it against them. It’ll be fun. I owe a lot of people in that organization to my development as a hockey player.”
First among that group: Larry Robinson, the Hall of Fame defenceman, and now an assistant coach on Peter DeBoer’s staff. Robinson was the Devils’ head coach back in 2000, someone Mitchells describes as “probably the best teacher out there for a young defenceman.
“I always tell the story about Larry and Patrik Elias on the half wall. I was a young kid and I was penalty killing and Elias was sucking me in and making me looking stupid and Larry’s going, ‘Oh, he’s got you taking the candy.’ I don’t know why, but that’s something that’s always stuck in my head: ‘Don’t take the candy.’ It’s how Larry Robinson played the game and I try and model my game after his. It’s be aggressive at the right times, but be patient and let great players come to you. And when they do, they expose the puck and you poke it away and you turn and you go the other way.
“I didn’t have Larry for long, but that was just a defining moment for me in terms of understanding the game of defence.”
Right now, Mitchell is playing a significant amount of defence for the Kings. He is second on the team in terms of overall ice time, playing 25 minutes, 27 seconds a game, on average, just behind Drew Doughty (25:52). The Kings generally do not seek matchups, but Mitchell and partner Slava Voynov often face the opposition’s top line, especially on the road, where the Kings are 8-0 this postseason.
The Devils represent a different sort of look for the Kings, perhaps the most offensively balanced team they’ve faced so far. Without Daniel Sedin, the Canucks were not the same imposing offensive force they had the potential to be, while the St. Louis Blues and the Phoenix Coyotes were both defensively sound teams with depth up front, but no real game breakers. The Devils, on the other hand, have both Ilya Kovalchuk (18 points) and Zach Parise (14 points) playing on separate lines and are getting balanced scoring from every corner of their lineup.
“I don’t want to discredit the teams we played against because Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy,” Mitchell said. “If that’s not a deep team, I don’t know what is.
“But the Devils, they’ve got great people there, a great head coach, Larry’s there. Then they brought in Adam Oates, who understands scoring and how to work the power play. So they’ve got great coaches and two dynamic lines that can put the puck in the back of the net, but …
“Their staple is, everyone buying in and playing smart defence and when the time is right, letting your talent take over. It’s similar to how we play. We’re a smart defensive team. We’ve got two lines that are pretty potent. We work from the back end out and we use our skill when the time is right.”
Two similar teams and one shared goal – the Stanley Cup. A dozen years after witnessing a banner raising, Mitchell would like nothing better than to be a participant next time round.