PORT McNEILL—While taping a cheering group of young North Island hockey players alongside the North Island Secondary School track Sunday morning, CTV news videographer Chandler Grieve spotted his chance. Quickly producing a boom microphone, he pointed it at the youngsters, checked his viewfinder, and asked, “What are you guys here for today?”
After a brief, silent pause, one of the kids loudly proclaimed the answer.
OK, so Grieve did not get his coveted sound bite. But a few minutes later, a crowd of nearly 4,000 people got what it wanted when hometown hero Willie Mitchell touched down on the school field in a helicopter and emerged to hoist the Stanley Cup high overhead.
He then marched, with a phalanx of cameramen, through a taped-off corridor to the doorstep of the arena where he grew up learning to play hockey before turning to address the crowd.
“I told you it was coming, and here it is,” said Mitchell, the crowd whooping as he rested the 58-pound NHL championship trophy on his shoulders. “Let’s celebrate.”
Inside Chilton Regional Arena, the crowd did just that in a whirlwind celebration at the centre of Mitchell’s 24 hours with the Cup, a tradition accorded to each member of the NHL’s championship team.
“I’m really fortunate,” Mitchell said, noting the many deserving NHL players who have never had a chance to raise the Cup. “The first thing going through my mind was how fortunate it was to have a day like this and have a chance to share it with a town that’s been so supportive.”
After Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney read a proclamation naming Aug. 12 Willie Mitchell Day, and arena founder and namesake Dale Chilton made a short speech honouring Mitchell’s accomplishment, Mitchell took the microphone once again as a capacity crowd of nearly 2,000 fans cheered loudly.
He spoke of his father lacing up his skates in the lobby while he ate salmon sandwiches — not chicken nuggets — and hoped the day could be an inspiration to the young minor hockey players who are in the same position he was in 25 years ago.
“Most of the people here played a role in me getting to this point,” Mitchell said, giving Lord Stanley’s chalice a pat. “So I want to thank you all for that. I know you didn’t come to hear me speak, so let’s take some pictures.”
Mitchell then posed with the Cup on a low stage while groups of fans took turns lining up in front of him for a quick photo.
“It’s pretty cool to see the happiness in their faces, to get a chance to bring it back and share it with the people who support me in the arena and share it with the whole crowd,” Mitchell said.
After most of the assembled crowd got a photo, and the overflow crowd in the parking lot had a chance to cycle through the arena for their own pictures, Mitchell returned to the helicopter for a quick hop to Alert Bay, where he was feted in another public ceremony in the ‘Namgis Big House.
Mitchell had previously been adopted by the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples and also has a pair of former North Island Eagles teammates living in the community. While the Cup was placed in front of the ceremonial fire, Mitchell was garbed in traditional aboriginal regalia before giving a speech of appreciation to the guest assembled.
Mitchell’s 24 hours with the Cup were a whirlwind of activity that covered a sizeable chunk of the North Island and included almost everything but sleep. After picking up the Cup in Vancouver around midnight Sunday morning, he flew into Nimmo Bay Resort for several hours of partying, followed by a nap and a fishing trip. He then flew to the ceremonies in Port McNeill and Alert Bay — and a stop for a quick photo op kissing the Cup atop Mount Benedict — before retiring to Telegraph Cove for a final party with a smaller, select group of family and friends before the clock ticked down on his day.
The crowd at Chilton Regional Arena earlier Sunday swelled to greater than the population of the town. Furney appreciated the turnout from neighbouring communities in Port Alice and Port Hardy, and noted how many visitors traveled from down-Island and beyond for the event.
“It was certainly more people than I expected, although I knew we’d have a crowd,” Furney said. “I think it went quite well. And this is just a run-through for next year, no doubt about it.”
Port McNeill actually has two chances to see the Cup again, with Mitchell and Minnesota Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner both playing in the league. Mitchell does not know what the future holds — the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is up for renewal and the start of the 2012-13 season could be thrown into question if owners and players reach an impasse — but he was happy to share his brief time with the Cup after winning for the first time with his fifth NHL team.
“You’re trying to share it with people, and also trying to do a few private things,” Mitchell said. “It’s unique up here, pretty isolated. I think because of that it’s a special bond I have with the community, and I wanted to share it with them.
“Who knows how many times it’s going to come up here?”