Florida Panthers

Panthers’ Willie Mitchell, Shane O’Brien also part of Vancouver ‘homecoming’

Florida Panthers’ Willie Mitchell is shown against the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Philadelphia.
Florida Panthers’ Willie Mitchell is shown against the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Philadelphia. AP

Despite such a large geographical distance, the Panthers and Canucks share much history.

Arguably Florida’s biggest trades over the past two decades have been with Vancouver.

Because of that, some of the most recognizable names in both teams’ history have worn the Florida and Vancouver sweater, including Pavel Bure, Roberto Luongo and Ed Jovanovski.

On Thursday night, Luongo returned to face Vancouver for the first time since the Panthers reacquired him last March.

Although much of the focus of Thursday’s game surrounded Luongo, it was a also a homecoming of sorts for two other players now representing the Panthers.

Neither Willie Mitchell nor Shane O’Brien were acquired by the Panthers in a trade with Vancouver even though both share much history with Luongo and the Canucks.

Both played here during Vancouver’s big years when the Canucks were racking up 100-point seasons, winning the President’s Trophy and were considered one of the top teams in the NHL.

Mitchell left the Canucks in 2010 after missing the second half of that season because of a concussion that put his career in doubt.

He ended up signing with Los Angeles and won the Stanley Cup twice in his four seasons with the Kings.

Watching the Canucks lose in the 2010 playoffs while hurt — and in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals to Boston while he was with the Kings -- Mitchell figures he could have helped bring this city its first Stanley Cup.

“I don’t think you get to this point if you don’t believe you can impact a team,’’ Mitchell said. “You have to have that belief you’re going to win every night, or it’s not going to happen.’’

Mitchell, who has faced the Canucks numerous times since leaving, signed on with the Panthers as a free agent in July and was named captain of the team just before the season opener.

Like Los Angeles, Mitchell feels he can help this young team become a contender.

“I basically went with what I thought was the right fit,’’ said Mitchell, who played four seasons with the Canucks and grew up in nearby Port O’Neill, British Columbia.

“It’s been great, really good. New ownership, new coaches here and when you’re part of something, you take a sense of pride in it.’’

O’Brien spent two seasons with Vancouver with the team being knocked out of Stanley Cup contention both times by Chicago.

Although Mitchell got his revenge on the Blackhawks while with Los Angeles, O’Brien hasn’t had the same chance.

“We had some hard-fought series with Chicago,’’ O’Brien said. “They got the better of us.’’

O’Brien was with Calgary last season and landed in Florida after earning a two-way contract after a training camp tryout.

O’Brien started this season in the minors and, because of Florida’s lack of injuries among defensemen, didn’t make his season debut until last week in Buffalo, New York.

With Erik Gudbranson missing a third consecutive game on Thursday, O’Brien was in the lineup in familiar territory.

“I had two great years here, we had great teams, won the division both times,’’ he said. “I love this city. I have a lot of friends here, a lot of great memories.’’

MONTOYA RETURNS

Goalie Al Montoya flew to Vancouver on Wednesday night after his wife Annie gave birth to the couple’s second child on Monday morning.

Montoya left the team following Sunday’s loss in Washington and was there for the birth of Henry Silva Montoya.

The Montoyas also have a daughter — 2-year-old Camila Marie.

“It was amazing. The past couple days have felt like a blur,’’ said Montoya, who will likely start Friday’s game in Calgary.

“The wife was amazing. But this is what it is being a hockey player; you pop out for a couple days and have a baby and get back to work. You enjoy it when you get home. It all worked out great.’’

▪ The Panthers got a number of players back into the lineup Thursday as Tomas Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky returned.

Friday: Panthers at Flames

When/where: 9 p.m.; Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, Alberta.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.

Series: Calgary leads 14-9-3.

Noteworthy: Calgary scored three goals in the third period and topped the Panthers 6-4 on Nov.8 in Sunrise. Calgary has lost two in a row — both at home.

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