As the hours turned into days, and those days turned into weeks, the waiting game continued. The clock on the far wall burned a hole into the wee hours of the night, an uncertain future doused in shades of murky gray.
The lights were off, the glowing hum of the television nonexistent-- it was too painful to watch, too uncomfortable to even try. Climbing that mountain would take time of course, and there was always the hope of reaching a point where hard work and a little luck could pay off dividends, but right now, at this very moment, it was the furthest thing from his mind. Optio non est.
Ah yes-- just another day in the life of a hockey fan during the doldrums of summer. A life that has little to offer in terms of emotional fulfillment.
The cool sheet of ice replaced by swimming pools, a solitary pair of buzzing headphones taking the place of the sweet roar of 18,000 rabid fans screaming for victory. These things served as nothing but a placeholder for a meandering soul. Lost in the monotony of rehabilitation, forced into a vapid existence by forces out of one's control.
And this ballad that serves as our soundtrack until September? The one that sings us to sleep each night? It's something a certain UFA defenseman knows very well. Perhaps too well, in fact.
Sidelined from skating since January of 2010, former Vancouver Canucks assistant captain Willie Mitchell's road to recovery has been one that has stretched on for nearly half a year, with numerous peaks and valleys littered throughout. Suffering a debilitating concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh Penguins All-Star forward Evgeni Malkin, who layed a shoulder into the exposed numbers of an off balance Mitchell during the third period of a 6-2 game, Mitchell missed the remainder of the season.
At one point he was unsure of whether he would ever play in the National Hockey League ever again.
"I’m not happy with the hit I took," Mitchell told reporters in May after the Canucks were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks. "We’re taught from a young age not to hit from behind and I had my numbers facing a player in a dangerous zone in a dangerous spot and he hit me."
Following the hit, Mitchell was forced into a secluded environment in order to get healthy. Unable to workout, watch television, or expose himself to prolonged periods of light, the road to recovery was a long and hard one in both the physical and mental sense. For a player who has always played with heart and soul, relying on his superior defensive abilities in order to keep the puck out of his own net and give others an opportunity to grab the glory associated with game winning goals, watching his teammates battle for wins during the postseason became a form of torture.
"In the first stage of my recovery I couldn’t even watch games, just because of the whole emotional aspect of a concussion injury," Mitchell said. "It’s not like you hurt a knee and you just feel pain, you’ve injured your brain so it’s not only the pain of the injury, it’s the emotional pain as well."
Mitchell has yet to skate following the concussion, and while plans are in place to begin to do so very soon, the road to recovery has yet to reach it's culmination.
For starters, Mitchell is still without a contract. He hit unrestricted free agency earlier this month, but with questions about his health still a concern for many familiar with the process, the chance that a General Manager would pursue him heavily without sending a scout to watch him run drills at full speed is an unlikely possibility.
"I went to the Canucks Summer Franchise last month and one of the attendees posed the question about Mitchell to GM Mike Gillis," Mike Halford of The Province said over email. "Gillis indicated that Mitchell still isn't physically capable of resuming his NHL career and that the Canucks weren't going to rush him to make a decision on his playing future."
It's really the determining factor as to why Mitchell has yet to receive a contract. The 6'3, 210 pound blueliner is a notable physical presence when healthy, able to log huge minutes against opposing team's top forwards and serve as the top shutdown man on numerous teams throughout the League. He is a perfect fit for the Sharks in this regard, and would allow San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson the freedom to look for a more offensive minded player this offseason to bolster production from the back end.
Again, however, lie the health issues.
The list of players who have succumbed to career ending concussions in the past is as wide and deep as any river known to man. One only has to look back to the career of Pat Lafontaine, one of the greatest American goal scorers of all-time, to see the effects this injury can have on a player. A hit by James Patrick in the 1990 playoffs kicked off what would be a long list of concussions for the then 25 year old Lafontaine. It was a list that shortened seasons, and eventually a career, as Lafontaine was forced into retirement during 1998 after sustaining a concussion following a collision with teammate Mike Keane. He was thirty four years old.
Whether or not this will be the fate of Willie Mitchell lies somewhere in the great unknown. This will be the third time he has returned from this type of injury, missing 9 games in 2006 and 8 games in 2002 with concussions, which makes him a candidate for relapse. Coupled with the physical brand of play that makes him so effective, it's a risk that any potential suitor will be aware of when approaching negotiations.
To say nothing of the fact that his most recent one has kept him off the ice for six whole months. Or the idea that, when he does return, the shutdown nature that has defined his career could suffer from being off the ice for so long. To serve the role as a shutdown man in the NHL one must toe the line every single night, with no hesitation or second guessing. It's always thinking too much that gets you in trouble, and for a player who Mike Halford of The Province describes as "tough as a leather sandwich," losing that edge could mean a slide from the top pairing to reduced minutes in a reduced role.
In all reality there's no telling where things will stand with Mitchell next season. He is, at this point, a wildcard.
When healthy? A proverbial full house Aces high.
Willie Mitchell vs. Rob Blake
|Year ||Player||GP||G/60||PTS/60||GFON/60||GFOFF/60||GAON/60||GAOFF/60||Qualcomp||PK TOI|
A phenomenal shutdown defenseman in every sense of the word, Mitchell could easily slide on to the top pairing with the Sharks and provide Todd McLellan an ability to roll him with Boyle up to twenty three minutes a night in just about every situation possible. He solves a lot of potential issues with San Jose's penalty kill next season, and could ease the burden of Boyle's herculean playing time by getting the Sharks number one defenseman off the ice shorthanded. It allows Boyle to see more minutes in the offensively conducive even strength and power play areas, making the production from San Jose's backend that much better.
In late game situations when the Sharks are protecting a lead, no defensive pairing would be better than a Vlasic-Mitchell duo. The elegant stickwork and positioning that Vlasic relies on to keep pucks out of the net coupled with Mitchell's physicality and equally impressive positioning skills would be a harmonious event to be certain, a perfect blend of two players who bring different skill sets to their shutdown games. Furthermore, it opens up Vlasic to begin to move the puck more, an area of his game that regressed last season due to being paired with an aging Rob Blake.
There's no question that a healthy Mitchell would be an immediate boon to the team.
Which brings us full circle back to those health issues:
It's tough to say what Mitchell's future holds. In late June, he declared himself symptom-free and vowed to play hockey next season. He’s tougher than a leather sandwich and an intense competitor, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back for 2010-11.
Of course, Mitchell is also 33 and plays a robust, physical game – a playing style that (in part) caused him to miss 64 games in four seasons with the Canucks. Add in the fact that Mitchell’s suffered two concussions in the last four years (he missed nine games back in 2006 with one) and the situation has more red flags than a Spanish bullfight.
Because it’s a concussion, his playing status next year will depend on two things: 1) How big an injury risk he’s adjudged to be, and 2) are any NHL GMs are willing to take that risk?
I don't think there's any doubt that Mitchell would have found a home on July 1st if there weren't questions about his concussion symptoms-- only Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara, and Marc Staal faced higher quality of competition with fewer goals against at five on five last season, putting him in the upper echelon of players you want to see take a shift during the third period of a playoff game. I put him behind only Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis, and Zbynek Michalek before Free Agency began this summer, and with all of those players finding homes on the first day, it's safe to say that Mitchell is probably the most obtainable target out there for the Sharks at this juncture. As well as one who could get you the most value.
If Doug Wilson does decide to pursue Mitchell, I would assume he offers a one year contract worth nothing more than $3.0MM. Wilson is anything but rash during this time of year, and with San Jose's salary cap a major factor in obtaining players, investing a considerable portion of that available space in someone who may not be completely healthy will be a large factor during negotiations.
"I've got a big part of my life back," Mitchell told the Vancouver Sun three weeks ago. "I have no uncertainty; I want to play hockey. It took a little longer than I expected [to recover], but I'm looking forward to next season. I'm really excited. I feel normal again."
One can only hope Mitchell is completely ready to go as he says he is. It would be an excellent comeback story during next season, and although Rob Blake and Jeremy Roenick were at a different stage in their career compared to Mitchell, Wilson does have a history of giving guys another chance to play in the NHL. Especially if a player could be had at a discount due to some health concerns.
But until more news begins to trickle out about Mitchell's skating progress, it's another game of wait and see as Doug Wilson bides his time to improve the roster.
Something that the fans in San Jose, as well as Willie Mitchell himself, have become all too familiar with over the last six months.