Willie Mitchell's summer of hard work recuperating from a severe concussion paid off Wednesday when he signed a new contract with the Los Angeles Kings.
After four seasons as a Vancouver Canuck, the 33-year-old defenceman signed a two-year deal with the Kings for a reported US$3.5 million per season. The deal ended half a year of uncertainty about Mitchell's NHL career after he was crushed into the boards by Penguins star Evgeni Malkin on Jan. 16 in Pittsburgh.
"I've still got some unfinished business left as a hockey player," said Mitchell in a conference call. "That's holding something up over my head."
The Kings won a bidding war with at least three teams, reportedly the Canucks, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks. Speaking earlier Wednesday after an informal skate at the University of British Columbia, he indicated the Canucks did not meet his financial terms as "economics" got in the way.
"I went down to L.A. and I really felt that they believed in me as a player," Mitchell said. "That's where you want to be as a player - somewhere that you believe they believe in you. I got the feeling that they thought it would be a really good fit. And for me personally, it was a chance to be with a young and up and coming team that has a lot of great things going."
The Canucks were becoming crowded on the blue-line, signing free agent defencemen Dan Hamhuis and trading for Keith Ballard on the first day of the NHL entry draft.
Mitchell said that he started feeling better in mid-June, but rather than sign with a club on the first day of free agency on July 1, he delayed his decision until he could prove to teams that he was healthy enough to resume his career.
While many NHLers were relaxing in June, the Port McNeill, B.C., native did "two-a-days" which included bag skates in the morning and off-ice workouts in the afternoon with a personal trainer.
He also completed the usual pre-season fitness tests at the UBC, where he has been skating recently with former Canuck teammates, other NHLers and junior-age players.
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said he decided to sign the unrestricted free agent after he met the NHL's concussion protocol, received doctors' approval and passed the pre-season fitness tests.
Lombardi said he felt Mitchell was "worth the risk" after watching Kings centre Jarret Stoll recover from concussions and witnessing retired San Jose Shark Tony Granato's recovery from a brain aneurysm.
Lombardi said Mitchell showed professionalism by making sure that he was healthy rather than participating in the "free agent frenzy" on July 1 and possibly posing more risk to the team that signed him.
"It also gives you more confidence that he really is symptom-free and, even more importantly, we are getting are getting a really special character player," said Lombardi, who expects Mitchell to be a top-four defenceman.
Mitchell's first regular season game as a King will be against the Canucks. He said it will be a really emotional experience after leaving the team that he grew up watching.
"Hopefully I get my colours right on the first night," said Mitchell.
NOTES: Mitchell is counselling Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau as the New Westminster, B.C., native battles his own concussion issues. "I'm trying to help him out with my experiences," said Mitchell. He and Morneau are longtime friends.