PORT McNEILL—With just under eight minutes remaining in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals Monday night, the crowd at Gate House Community Theatre erupted in cheers.
And that was for restoration of the satellite signal after it went down for about three minutes.
But the biggest cheer of the night came when hometown hero Willie Mitchell hoisted the Cup and confirmed the speculation that has run rampant in the community for more than a week — that the Cup will be coming here.
“I can’t wait to bring it back to B.C. and Vancouver Island,” Mitchell told CBC Television in an on-ice interview immediately after the L.A. Kings’ series-clinching, 6-1 home victory over the New Jersey Devils. “Port McNeill, it’s coming.”
Mitchell, a 35-year-old veteran defenseman, was born and grew up in Port McNeill, and began his hockey career here.
He hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time while playing for his fifth NHL team — and after beating the team that initially drafted him into the NHL, in 1996. By tradition, each player on the winning team is granted 24 hours with the Cup.
The moment was cheered by dozens of fans, ranging from schoolchildren and their families to Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney, at Gate House Theatre. The facility hurriedly activated its satellite system to display the last two games of Mitchell’s chase for the Cup on its 40-foot screen.
“I just feel really good about the whole thing, having learned to skate at the same time Willie was starting to skate here at the arena,” said Furney. “Every day I was in there skating at noon hour there was this little guy in the corner with his dad, shooting and passing pucks.
“Hopefuly he’ll be skating around in that same arena with the Stanley Cup.”
Young Kai Verbrugge, who played hockey in Port McNeill’s novice program last season, livened proceedings at the theatre by dressing in a black suit jacket and white gloves and marching a replica cup down the aisle to place on the stage below the big screen.
After the game he walked the cup around the corner to Timberland Sports Centre, owned by his grandparents, Les and Fay Beech. There, Fay Beech and daughter April Foster were replacing their “Go Willie Go” window placards with “Congratulations Willie and the L.A. Kings — We are so proud of you”.
Verbrugge’s Cup was placed in the corner of the window display as an exclamation point.
Mitchell, who skated for the Devils, the Minnesota Wild, the Dallas Stars and the Vancouver Canucks before signing with L.A. prior to the 2010-11 season, returns with wife Megan each offseason to the North Island, where his parents, Reid and Nadia, still live.
A longtime supporter of local youth causes and minor hockey, Mitchell has for years provided signed hockey jerseys for minor hockey tournament raffle tables and awards banquet draws.
Just two weeks ago, as the Kings were closing out their Western Conference championship series against Phoenix, Willie took the time to exhort local youth to apply for funds available through the Willie Mitchell Classic, a fundraising golf tournament played at Seven Hills Golf and Country Club in 2006 and which has since provided nearly $20,000 to local youth pursuing academic, artistic, athletic and other personal goals.
Shortly after the Kings’ victory Monday, the B.C. government extended congratulations to Mitchell and Colin Fraser, who was born in Sicamous and raised in Surrey.
“It is always exciting to see British Columbia athletes succeed, and I know that the communities of Sicamous, Surrey and Port McNeill are celebrating this win along with us,” said Ida Chong, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.
The Stanley Cup’s closest previous appearance to Port McNeill came in June of 2006, when Rod Brind’Amour brought it to Campbell River following the Carolina Hurricanes’ finals victory. An estimated 5,000 fans turned out to see Brind’Amour and the Cup at Tyee Plaza.