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.”

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.