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Former NHLer Willie Mitchell describes one of the most difficult decisions of his life – walking away

Willie Mitchell was raised in the small town of Port McNeill, B.C., on Vancouver Island. He says hockey was always a passion.

JEREMY KORESKI

Willie Mitchell is a retired, two-time Stanley Cup-winning National Hockey League player who is now the co-owner and managing partner of the Tofino Resort + Marina in Tofino, B.C. He retired from the NHL in 2016 after suffering one too many concussions, and bought the resort with two partners, former fellow Vancouver Canuck player Dan Hamhuis and developer and businessman Andrew Purdey, founder of Ruskin Construction Ltd.

I was born in Nanaimo, B.C., and raised in the small town of Port McNeill, B.C., on Vancouver Island. My father was a heavy-duty mechanic and my mother was a ticket attendant with B.C. Ferries. Hockey was always a passion: My grandfather played amateur senior hockey and once, during the Original-Six era, earned a tryout with the New York Rangers.

At age 15, I was at that 'Y' in the road where you could get into some trouble in a small town. My parents weren’t wealthy but managed to send me to the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private school with a hockey program. I later went to Clarkson University in New York state, where I played junior college hockey.

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In professional sports, you’re only a prospect for a certain period of time. I played for about 16 years including in Minnesota, where I met my wife Megan, then briefly in Dallas, then my home province of Vancouver and then Los Angeles, where I got do to the ultimate with a team – which was win the Stanley Cup, twice. I finished in Florida as the captain of that team.

In hockey, the captain of a team is a leader. You’re looked to for some guidance, especially from younger players. The quicker you can get those younger guys on board and understanding what it takes to win, the more success you have as a team.

To me, a good leader is someone with a lot of passion who chooses a direction and doesn’t waver from it. Indecision is the quickest route to failure. They also make sure their team has buy-in. That’s what I try to do – to get buy-in from my team to find success.

In Florida, I had to make one of the toughest decisions of my life, which was to walk away from the game of hockey for my health. [Doctors said] the next hit could’ve put me in permanent post-concussion syndrome. Leaving the team going into the playoffs, which is everything in professional sports, was really hard.

There was some leadership in walking away. I want people to understand that it’s okay to walk away, to take care of yourself first. If you don’t, how can you make other people happy?

It has been the hardest two years of my life, managing the resort. I am a perfectionist. Brand is everything to me. If you come onto my site and it’s not a good representative of my standards for my brand – that upsets me. I have a level of where I want the property to be. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.

I’ve made some mistakes in the business. One was not trusting my instincts and using my voice earlier on. In hockey, I had good situational awareness. I could see everything going on on the ice. With the business, I tiptoed in. I saw things going wrong and didn’t voice it right away. There were no policies or procedures in place. I’m learning to trust myself more, and my instincts.

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Managing people is a big part of leadership. People need to feel important and valued. You also need to define a clear path forward. If you don’t have that, everyone is just going around without direction.

To be a good leader, it’s important to ask a ton of questions. It’s the only way to learn, to improve. You have to put yourself out there in life.

What keeps me up at night? Not running my business efficiently and taking care of my people. They’ve bet on me. I feel an obligation to them. I try to make sure I don’t kill my team’s passion. If they’re passionate about working for me, I know it’s going to work.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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