PORT McNEILL—It turns out Willie Mitchell doesn’t have to have the Stanley Cup in his possession to create a mob scene at Chilton Regional Arena.
A few dozen hockey helmets will turn the trick, as well.
Mitchell, the Port McNeill-raised defenseman who helped the Los Angeles Kings win the 2012 Stanley Cup before bringing it to his hometown arena in August, returned Thursday bearing 33 M11 anti-concussion helmets he distributed to Port McNeill’s minor hockey association.
The visit was not publicized, and Mitchell surprised the young skaters by joining them on the ice for practice before retiring to the Image Room upstairs for pizza and autographs.
“My idea was to sit around and eat pizza and just hang out,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “But then the reality hit that was just not gonna happen because everyone wants their autograph. It ended up being the whole (autograph) line thing, which I really wasn’t into.
“I just wanted to sit around eating pizza and just have the kids ask questions. That was my big pie-in-the-sky idea.”
Mitchell and his wife Megan contribute to local minor hockey associations throughout the year, helping provide jerseys and equipment to families who may have difficulty with the expense of the sport. With the NHL players off the ice due to the ongoing lockout by team owners, he had been hoping for a rare in-season visit home to skate with the youngsters in the association in which he got his start.
He teamed with the Messier Project, a collaboration between retired NHL superstar Mark Messier and Cascade Sports to bring awareness and attention to encourage safe play on the ice, to bring the 33 M11 helmets, to distribute to the association. The 33 helmets correspond to Mitchell’s jersey number, 33.
Mitchell, whose career appeared in jeopardy when he suffered a series of concussions ending in 2010 near the end of his tenure with the Vancouver Canucks, wears the M11 helmet and his photo is featured on the Messier Project’s web page. He is the first NHL player to win a Stanley Cup in the helmet, which is designed to afford additional protection to the wearer against traumatic impact.
“The reason behind this is to create some awareness, too,” said Mitchell. “It’s something that’s close to home for me with the concussions I’ve been through. I don’t want to see any of these kids later in life having issues. Sometimes you need to have a voice of someone who’s been through it to recognize, OK, this is real.”
The first helmets were distributed to the atom team, and Mitchell joined the players in the locker room to discuss safety and sportsmanship before joining them on the ice during practice. The helmets will remain the property of Port McNeill Minor Hockey, and PMMHA president Scott Mitchell (no relation) said they will be cleaned up at the end of the season and re-distributed to another team next season.
“My message to the kids was to not only protect yourself, but respect the game and your opponents,” said Willie. “You can still be physical and be all those things hockey is, but you can do it in a way that’s not gonna hurt your peers.”
Mitchell made a fine pitchman for the helmet, but seemed to have the most fun lacing up his skates and joining the kids on the ice. Starting with the peanuts who barely reach his waist, right through to the peewees who he joined on ice for their official association team portrait, he sported a large grin and a brisk step.
“The helmet thing is cool,” he said. “It’s nice to do that and bring awareness, and it’s important to me because it’s something that hits close to home.
“But the number one thing for me was to come up and skate with the kids.”