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


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.”


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.”

Canucks recall training camp standout Stecher

Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Edler, of Sweden; Joseph Labate; Alexis D'Aoust; James Sheppard; and Troy Stecher, from left, celebrate Labate's goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period of an NHL hockey preseason game Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Didn’t take Troy Stecher long to get back up to the NHL.

Stecher, the undrafted free agent out of North Dakota that starred for Vancouver in the preseason, has been recalled from AHL Utica along with forward Jayson Megna.

The Canucks needed some fresh bodies from the farm following injuries to Alex Burrows, Derek Dorsett and, most distressingly, defenseman Chris Tanev. Tanev took a bad spill into the boards during Sunday’s loss to Anaheim, and appeared to be in serious discomfort.

If he’s out for any length of time, it could be a problem.

The 26-year-old is one of Vancouver’s top blueliners and a valued defensive defenseman. He’s averaging over 20 minutes per night this year, and is coming off a campaign in which he scored 18 points in 69 games, while averaging a career-best 21:45 TOI per night.

Stecher, 22, could draw into the lineup for Tuesday’s home date against Ottawa as Tanev’s replacement, or the Canucks could give towering Russian rearguard Nikita Tryamkin his season debut.

Tryamkin, who appeared in 13 games for Vancouver last year, has yet to dress but also refused assignment to Utica (he has an out clause allowing him to return to the KHL rather than report to the minors.)

Canucks’ Tryamkin refuses AHL assignment, would prefer to be a healthy scratch apparently

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers battles against Nikita Tryamkin #88 of the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The Vancouver Canucks have an interesting situation with big Russian defenseman Nikita Tryamkin. Six games into season, the 22-year-old defenseman has yet to get into the lineup, and he’s been brandishing the KHL out-clause in his contract by refusing an assignment to the AHL.

“There is no possibility that he will play in the American Hockey League,” GM Jim Benning said this weekend, per the Vancouver Sun. “We’ve explored that. We’ve talked to him and his agent and he has said no. In a perfect world, we’d like him to get some games (in the minors). But it is what it is. He is working hard in practice and doing extra work.”

Tryamkin was the 66th overall pick in the 2014 draft, an enticing project with size and strength, one who naturally drew comparisons to Zdeno Chara. He came to North America late last season, after his fourth KHL campaign with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg had finished, and played 13 games (1G, 1A) for the Canucks down the (meaningless) stretch.

It remains to be seen when he’ll get into a game again. Chris Tanev got banged up Sunday in Anaheim and is questionable for tomorrow’s home date against Ottawa, but Tanev is more likely to be replaced by Alex Biega, who played as a forward against the Ducks.

Tryamkin, meanwhile, will likely have to sit and wait. Unless he gets bored enough to go to Utica, which is where the Canucks would like him anyway.

Per Cap Friendly, Tryamkin’s contract pays him $925,000 in the NHL versus $70,000 in the AHL. He can become a restricted free agent after the season is over, which would allow him to return to the KHL should he choose to do so.

The list of struggling netminders is a long one, as it’s been goals galore to start the season

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) watches as Patrik Laine's game-tying goal goes past Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (31) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP)

In case you haven’t noticed, NHL goalies are having a real struggle to start the 2016-17 season. After 80 games, the average save percentage sits at just .903, per Hockey Reference.

To put that number in perspective, the last time a season finished with that low an average was 2000-01. The last couple of years, it’s been at .915, the highest save rate in league history. So don’t expect it to stay at .903 for long. Remember, the goalies’ equipment hasn’t really been altered yet.

With that in mind, here are five goalies that need to pull it together:

Brian Elliott: The most obvious candidate. He’s been extremely shaky for his new team in Calgary, going 0-3-0 with an .839 save rate. Another poor performance tonight in Chicago and head coach Glen Gulutzan may need to give Chad Johnson an opportunity to take the ball and run with it, because the Flames are already in a hole.

Frederik Andersen: Another goalie playing for a new team. He’s gone 1-0-3 for Toronto, with an .879 save percentage. The Maple Leafs had better hope this is just a blip, because they’re committed to Andersen through 2020-21 for a cap hit of $5 million.

Corey Crawford: This is an interesting one, because Crawford has mostly been ventilated on the penalty kill. His save percentage is a ridiculously low .615 while the ‘Hawks are shorthanded (10 goals allowed) and an impressive .966 at even strength (three goals). Overall, he’s 1-3-0 with an .886 save percentage, which needs to be higher one way or the other.

Eddie Lack/Cam Ward: Let’s count these two as one, because they both play for Carolina and they’re both having serious issues. After five Hurricanes games, Lack’s save percentage is just .857 (three starts), while Ward’s is somehow worse at .852 (two starts). It was a similar story last year, when Lack and Ward combined for the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL, so don’t feel obligated to act surprised.

Steve Mason/Michal Neuvirth: We’ll also count these guys as one, since they both play for Philadelphia and they’re both having a tough go. This scenario is different than Carolina’s, though, because Mason and Neuvirth were both excellent last season in helping the Flyers to an unexpected playoff berth. This season, Mason is 1-2-1 with an .882 save percentage, while Neuvirth is technically undefeated with a 1-0-0 record, but his save percentage is just .854 in two appearances.

So that’s seven struggling goalies. There are plenty of honorary mentions, including Anton Khudobin, Louis Domingue, Darcy Kuemper, Craig Anderson, John Gibson, Martin Jones, Jake Allen, and even Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, whose save percentage sits at a lowly .861.

PS — Henrik Lundqvist, Semyon Varlamov, and Marc-Andre Fleury haven’t been great either.

Oh look, more injuries in Dallas

Lindy Ruff
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The Stars should be on the lookout for banana peels and open manhole covers.

After a disappointing 3-0 loss to Columbus, Dallas received more bad news in the health department — Ales Hemsky, who returned from a groin injury to play his first game of the year on Saturday, was re-injured and is now out for Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg, while Jason Spezza “tweaked something in practice” today and is listed as questionable, per the Morning-News.


Spezza and Hemsky join Cody Eakin (knee), Mattias Janmark (knee), Patrick Sharp (concussion), Patrick Eaves (lower body) and Jiri Hudler (flu) among Dallas’ inactives.

Eaves might be able to go against the Jets, while Hudler has all but been ruled out. The rest of the ailments are of the longer-term variety, with Janmark the longest at 5-6 months.

As you might expect, the Stars have struggled while trying to compensate. The lineup against Columbus featured the likes of Gemel Smith, Lauri Korpikoski and Adam Cracknell — all of whom are basically new to the team this season — and, unsurprisingly, Dallas’ recent record reflects that lack of roster consistency: 1-2-1 over the last four games, including a pair of home defeats to the Kings and Jackets.

“We’ve got to deal with what we’ve got,” head coach Lindy Ruff said.

Related: The injury situation in Dallas is out of control