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Willie Mitchell talks concussion: “Eight months of my life was gone”

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This post is part of a series looking at the issue and impact of concussions in the NHL. ProHockeyTalk and Comcast SportsNet are featuring pieces today as a lead-in to tonight’s special edition of NHL Live on Versus (6:30 p.m. EST.)

Few NHLers are more qualified to speak about concussions than Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell.

On Jan. 16, 2010, Mitchell — then with the Vancouver Canucks — received this career-altering hit from Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin:

Mitchell suffered a severe concussion on the hit and was unable to play for eight months. He missed the remainder of the regular season, the entire postseason and has since called it “the toughest year of his life.”

Now healthy, Mitchell is flourishing with the Kings. He leads the team in blocked shots and is one of its top penalty-killing defensemen.

Recently, PHT’s Matt Reitz spoke with Mitchell about his concussion history, his recovery and the physical toll it’s taken on him.

On dealing with uncertainty and pain…

“I missed eight months of hockey. Eight months of my life was gone, right? [That’s] the reality of it, eight months of your life is gone. You’re living in pain every day, you have a headache, headache is pain. Whether it’s small, medium, or large headache, it’s pain. You live with that.

“It’s tough. You can’t do anything. You can’t read, you can’t drive your car — it hurts. Living in pain, it’s almost like, I always say, a snippet into a terminal illness so to speak. It gives you a little snippet, because not only [does it] physically bother you, but it’s the emotional aspect of it as well. You wake up every day and you don’t feel better and that can take its toll. And stress in life, what does it do? It gives you a headache. Well, that’s one thing you’re trying to get away from is a headache.”

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On the stress of dealing with his injury in Vancouver

“Some of the external factors that you can’t control, as much as you want to ignore them, sometimes you can’t. I was in a Canadian market — Vancouver — it’s crazy, we’re in the playoffs, I’m a BC [British Columbia] boy so I’m kind of a fan favorite up there and everyone wherever I walk: ‘How’s your head? How’s your head?’ That’s the last thing I want to talk about and think about. I just wanted to disconnect from that.

“So that’s what I did. I went up to my place up in the middle of nowhere, in the forest, and just chilled. It wasn’t until we actually got knocked out of the playoffs, then all those external factors [went away]. There was no more pressure on me to come back. There was no more pressure on myself to help my teammates. All of a sudden, there was a clarity. Because what do you lose? You lose all that stress.”

On the physical toll…

“We play this great game; I get in a car wreck six times per night. I do. I get in a car wreck six times a night. How many people get in a car wreck in their life? Hopefully no one. But, maybe once in your life? Hopefully it never happens. I get in a car wreck six times a night, 82 times per year, plus playoffs, and this is my 13th season at the professional level. The rest of my teammates do too. We sign up for that, we know. That’s why we get paid well.”

On teammate Mike Richards, currently out with a concussion…

“I talked to him a couple of times. It’s something that you don’t want to talk to him too much about, because like I alluded to earlier, if everyone’s asking him, ‘How you doing, how you doing?’ what’s he going to be? He’s going to be in a stressful state and he’s not going to get healthy. I just try to leave him be. I talked to him once just about my experience and said, ‘Be smart, take your time. Don’t sit there and push it.’ We’re seeing it all around the league. The guys that push it, there are recurrences to it, and first and foremost is his health.

“He [Richards] is going to get healthy.  You always get healthy and half the battle is just making sure you’re in the right mindset, that yeah, I’m going to get better and it’s going to be fine. It gets better when it gets better, because you can’t control it.”

If there’s an expansion draft, which goalie should Pittsburgh protect?

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) misses on a shot on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) during the third period of Game 1 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinal series Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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Marc-Andre Fleury could have started in Game 3 on Monday, but didn’t. Instead the Penguins went with Matt Murray, who rewarded their trust by stopping 47 shots in a 3-2 victory over Washington.

What’s remarkable is that no part of that story is surprising at this point. Under different circumstances, the Penguins might have started Fleury as soon as he had the green light to return from his concussion, but why switch course when Murray’s been excelling between the pipes?

But that’s just the reality of these set of circumstances, right? Shouldn’t the starting gig eventually revert back to Fleury given that he is the established upper-echelon goaltender while Murray is still fairly inexperienced?

Under normal circumstances that would seem like a reasonable conclusion and in the short-term that might be the road the Penguins go down, but as Sportsnet recently brought up a potential expansion draft has the power to change things.

As Sportsnet reported:

An interesting aspect of the recent deal worked out by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association regarding expansion draft rules is that only players with a full no-movement clause will have to be protected by their team, according to a source.

Fleury’s contract includes a no-movement clause for the purposes of waivers or being assigned to the American Hockey League, but it is limited when it comes to trades. Each year he submits a 12-team list of teams where he can’t be dealt.

As a result, he’s not exempt from the expansion process and the Penguins would have to decide between protecting either him or Murray if both remained on the roster through the end of next season. It might ultimately force general manager Jim Rutherford into making up his mind sooner in order to trade one away and get a return on the asset.

Sportsnet goes into detail about Murray’s performance in the playoffs as well as the situation this has left Marc-Andre Fleury in and it’s a good read. For our purposes right now, let’s focus on the what if scenario of that possible expansion draft.

It might all sound premature given that Murray only has 19 total playoff and regular season NHL games under his belt and certainly there’s a lot that could happen between now and any potential expansion draft that would make the Penguins’ decision easier. At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that the 21-year-old goaltender didn’t come out of nowhere this season. The majority of people might not have paid attention to Murray prior to this season, but his 2014-15 AHL rookie campaign was nothing short of incredible and he remained dominant in the AHL in 2015-16 before getting summoned.

In that context, Murray is more than just a hot goaltender and even if he gets lit up in Game 4 tonight resulting in Fleury being thrust back into service, that wouldn’t dismiss this conversation as no longer relevant. Either way the Penguins decision in an expansion draft would come down to picking between the relative safety of 31-year-old Fleury or the high potential of Murray.

It’s a tough call to make, but the consolation for the Penguins is that they won’t be the only team forced to make difficult decisions as the result of an expansion draft, should one happen.

PHT Morning Skate: Hartley’s not the first to get fired within year of winning Jack Adams Award

Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley sets a play during overtime of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Boston, Thursday, March 5, 2015. The Flames defeated the Bruins 4-3 in overtime. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

It took less than a year for Bob Hartley to go from winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach to being fired. That might seem like an incredible drop, but Hartley’s not the first to go through this. (Calgary Sun)

Speaking of the Hartley firing, Mark Giordano said “it’s an eye-opener for a lot of our players.” (Calgary Sun)

Pittsburgh has a 2-1 edge in its second round series, but between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals captain has been the bigger contributor. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

After spending a season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, Mark Morris has decided to go back to coaching college hockey. (The News & Observer)

If you have $7.19 million lying around, you might be able to buy Ryan Getzlaf‘s Corona del Mar house. (Orange County Register)

Finally, on a different note, the Tampa Bay Times have bought and shutdown the Tampa Tribune, as USA Today reported. That ended Erik Erlendsson’s tenure as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s beat writer for the Tribune and Lightning coach Jon Cooper took it upon himself to write this:

Fights, hits and a blown kiss: Stars and Blues get nasty

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Things were getting out of hand between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues on the scoreboard in an eventual 6-1 Blues win.

They were also getting a little raucous on the ice when it was clear that the Stars weren’t going to stage a comeback.

Jamie Benn was whistled for cross-checking Alex Pietrangelo, but it was Stephen Johns‘ hit from behind on Pietrangelo really revved up the violence.

Watch that hit and then the scrum that ensued in the video above, which included a scary display of an angry Ryan Reaves … who got creative at the end.

You may also want the kiss alone, so here it is:

Memo: rough stuff might not work so well against the Blues.

Read about that blowout here.

Blues bombard Stars, go up 2-1 in series

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Sometimes a final score is misleading. In the case of the St. Louis Blues’ 6-1 thrashing of the Dallas Stars, it might just be the start of the story.

Honestly, the most positive thing the Stars can say is “Well, at least it was just one game.”

It was one ugly game, however, and now the Blues hold a 2-1 series lead with a chance to really take control if they can win Game 4 at home.

The Blues dominated just about every category on Tuesday, firing more shots on goal, enjoying better special teams play and throwing more hits. They even blocked a higher number of shots, which often isn’t the case for the squad that carries play.

This leaves the Stars picking up the pieces, especially when it comes to their work in their own end.

Do you put greater blame on struggling goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi or is this more about the Stars’ lax defensive coverage? The scary answer may be “Both,” and the Stars likely know that they need to find answers quickly.

On the bright side for Dallas, it is just one game … and the Blues were searching for answers of their own after Game 1.

We saw the Blues turn things around with these two straight wins, so now the Stars must show that they can gather themselves and play the attacking, out-score-your-mistakes style that got them here.

Granted, they may have to keep an eye out for supplemental discipline after some rough stuff toward the end of the game.