Florida Panthers

Willie Mitchell’s dilemma: Return to Panthers or retire because of concussions

In the final year of the two-year contract, Willie Mitchell’s career — which includes 14 NHL seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with Los Angeles — could be over because of repeated concussions.
In the final year of the two-year contract, Willie Mitchell’s career — which includes 14 NHL seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with Los Angeles — could be over because of repeated concussions. AP

Florida Panthers captain Willie Mitchell is skating with in an attempt to return to the team before the playoffs, although team doctors apparently are concerned about the veteran defenseman’s medical outlook for the future and have warned him not to come back.

Mitchell, 38, has sustained a number of concussions over the past few years including one believed to be in January. Mitchell has been out of the lineup since Jan. 18, when he left because of what was initially thought to be a leg injury.

Later, it was determined Mitchell was suffering from concussion-related issues and he stopped skating.

On Thursday, the Panthers said it’s up to Mitchell whether he returns to the team or not.

In the final year of the two-year contract, Mitchell’s career — which includes 14 NHL seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with Los Angeles — could be over.

“Willie has to decide whether he can play or not,” general manager Dale Tallon said Thursday.

“We want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, we want to make sure there is no permanent damage. But this is up to Willie. We want to do what is best for him. That’s the bottom line. The doctors have said they’re concerned with his long-term health.”

Mitchell is an extremely popular personality within the team and one source said if he decides to come back, the team would welcome him with open arms.

The team doesn’t want to prohibit Mitchell from returning because of the precedent it would set, but also doesn’t want to see him get concussed again and have to deal with the ramifications of such an injury.

Mitchell has been skating for the past few weeks and is said to be in good enough physical shape to return if he so chooses.

Mitchell has been around the team over the past few weeks and was front-and-center in the photo shared by actor Kevin Spacey when he visited Florida’s locker room following Saturday’s loss to Detroit.

The Panthers expect Mitchell — who hasn’t spoken to the media since January — to make his decision in the coming days.

“He’s a big part of this whole change we’ve had over the past couple of years,” center Nick Bjugstad said. “He’s a big voice in this locker room, a great defensive-defenseman and all the guys have learned from him. It’s been tough not having him in the locker room and on the ice as well.

“We know how tough this is on him. You hurt for a guy who is so passionate about the game yet isn’t able to play. He loves the game and this is the time of year where he really starts turning it up. He’s a great playoff guy. It would be great to have him back, but who knows when that will be.”

George Richards: 305-376-4995, @GeorgeRichards

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