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.”