Willie Mitchell says the playoffs are “kind of my time of year” as he was a big part of Los Angeles’ run to a pair of Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and again two years later.
So not being able to play because of numerous concussions “kind of eats you up a bit.”
Speaking on the record to the South Florida media for the first time in months on Sunday, Mitchell espoused on a number of topics but skirted any mention of his concussions or doctors telling him his future well-being will be at risk if he returns.
Mitchell has traveled with the team and has also been active in practices and meetings for the better part of a month.
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When named captain of the team in 2014 after signing a two-year deal with the team during a team building trip to West Point, Mitchell says, he made a promise to owner Vinnie Viola.
Mitchell plans on keeping it.
“I remember shaking hands with our owner at West Point Academy and talking about being captain of this team,” Mitchell said. “[Viola] 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. ... I’m passing it on to these guys like it was passed on to me. I’m trying to do that.”
Being part of the team during such a critical time has helped Mitchell fill the void of not playing, to an extent, as he says it has “kept me busy.”
On Saturday, he celebrated his 39th birthday with his teammates in New York and was on the ice for Sunday’s morning skate.
“Obviously, I haven’t been able to get out there and it’s really, really [expletive] hard to be honest with you,” Mitchell said. “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.”
Mitchell says he’s trying to help the Panthers reach the ultimate goal — play “for the real deal, Lord Stanley’s Cup” — including veteran players who have never been part of that experience, especially former Vancouver teammate Roberto Luongo.
Mitchell left the Canucks for Los Angeles a season before they lost in seven games to Boston in the 2011 Finals.
Not only does he want another go-round with the Cup, but he wants to share the experience with his boys in South Florida.
“I’ve had the big skate, had the big summer — twice,” he said. “Roberto [Luongo], 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.”
Although Mitchell sounds like he hasn’t ruled out a return in the future, it’s likely he has played his final game.
Helping the Panthers anyway he can is his biggest motivation.
“I’m not a passenger out there, I’m trying to bust my [rear] and push them to get better,” Mitchell said.
Later, he said “who knows, right? Who knows, who knows. Things change. Now is now and I’m on the outside looking in. Things change in life.”
▪ Center Nick Bjugstad didn’t travel with the team after falling face-first into the top of the boards during the first overtime of Friday’s 2-1 double-overtime loss in Sunrise.
Although coach Gerard Gallant would only say Bjugstad has “an upper-body injury and is day-to-day,” one team source said they didn’t have him travel out of concerns he might have sustained a concussion
With Bjugstad out, Vincent Trocheck returned to center the second line, and Logan Shaw moved off the fourth-line wing to center the third on Sunday, although Gallant planned on rotating centers as he did here in Game 4 before Trocheck returned from a foot injury.
Shawn Thornton was back in the lineup after missing the past two games because of the flu.