Kings’ Willie Mitchell fights for 1st Stanley Cup, seeks to redefine concussions in NHL

NEWARK -- It seems that most years in the Stanley Cup Final, there's an older player who either is making his first appearance or has played in one without winning a ring. We all remember the quests of Ray Bourque and Dave Andreychuk in years past. In Willie Mitchell's case, the 35-year-old Los Angeles Kings defenseman has played in 719 regular season games and 65 in the playoffs, and now he's finally getting his opportunity to win a championship.

Mitchell was originally drafted by the New Jersey Devils, but played only 18 games with the club. His third game in the League was Oct. 6, 2000, the night the Devils raised their second Stanley Cup banner. The then-23-year-old Mitchell saw the jubilation in his teammates and hoped his day would come soon.

"I knew it was a hard thing to do," said Mitchell. "I think sometimes inside you think that some years you have great teams and you think you're gonna get there and you don't get there. There's a lot that goes into it. You gotta be playing good hockey but you gotta be on a team that stays healthy and get on a bit of a roll. I'm fortunate enough to do that. It's definitely taken a while, but it's been a long time coming."

Mitchell last played this late in a season in 2003 when he was a member of a Minnesota Wild team that surprised their way to the Western Conference Final; but in five playoff appearances since, his teams haven't been able to get past the second round.

As Mitchell said, you need good health and a team that gets on a roll to reach the Cup Final. He was on a strong Vancouver Canucks team during the 2009-10 season, but in January of that year he took a hit from Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and landed into the boards suffering a concussion. He missed the rest of the season and signed with the Kings that summer, but not before he sounded off on the lack of supplemental discipline on the play.

From May 2010:

"I am disappointed in the league, I'm disappointed in Colin Campbell. I am disappointed he didn't rule down anything on the play. That's his job. As we've seen, he's been very inconsistent in how he's handled himself in those situations. I think a lot of times he hands down suspensions and fines on results. I think that's the wrong thing to do."

When Mitchell spoke out then, it wasn't to point fingers or call out then-discipline czar Colin Campbell -- it was what Mitchell believed.

Two years later, he sticks by those beliefs and hopes his talking about his concussion experience opens the eyes of his peers.

But does he believe the supplemental discipline process has changed for the better under Brendan Shanahan?

"I think they did a really good job during the regular season," said Mitchell. "They were swift. They were hard. They came after all those things. Bottom line is when you start getting into larger suspensions it deters players more and teams, for that matter. They don't wanna lose their players and tell their players to play a different way to make sure they stay in the lineup.

"I thought in the playoffs it's been a little bit different. I know the stakes are higher. Maybe it's tougher to do it in the postseason. Obviously Raffi [Torres] had the big suspension because he was a repeat offender, but otherwise they probably haven't been heavy as they've been during the regular season. I'd like to see it stay consistent throughout even though it's higher stakes. With change it doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't with anything in society. But I think if you stick to your guns players will adapt just like we adapt to all the rule changes that have happened over the last 10-15 years."

Mitchell says education about concussions is important for everyone because the effects of brain injuries still aren't understood by those who haven't experienced one.

"That's why I do talk about it and understand how significant it is and therefore players will not put their peers at risk. In the game of hockey that's going to happen a little bit. It's nature of the beast. You sign up for that. I go out on the ice every night and knowing I could get hurt."

Mitchell would like to see one simple change to help the education hit home immediately.

"Personally, I don't like the term concussion as it is. It's minor brain trauma, right?" he said.

"I'd like to see that word changed, but that's just me. I don't like that diagnosis. In hockey we talk about it as a guy got his bell rung, well, it's a concussion, right? It's minor brain trauma. I think it should be spoke [of] in that light, not spoken in a lighter light. Hopefully people do that. I think that's part of it, the education on how serious it is and players who've been through it and talking about that."

While the NHL and do its best to try and deter players with harsh suspensions, Mitchell says in the end it comes down to the players' decision on making legal hits.

"I think Sid [Crosby] said it best: You have time to hit a player, you have time to think about how you're going to hit him."

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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