SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Willie Mitchell hoisted the Stanley Cup twice, played parts of 15 NHL seasons, even found a way back on the ice after a knee injury kept him out for more than a year.
This time, it looks virtually certain that he’s gone for good.
The Florida Panthers don’t expect their captain to be back next season, and one of his closest friends on the team essentially revealed Tuesday that he thinks Mitchell’s career is over. Mitchell missed the final 42 games of this season largely over concern what another brain injury would mean to his long-term health, and it’s been expected for weeks that this season would be the finale.
“Willie’s been a consummate professional,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s been a great captain. He’s won Stanley Cups. He’s given his body and soul to the game. It’s hard. … It’s never easy and I’ll give him all the support he can get.”
It bears noting that no one in the organization came out Tuesday and flatly said that Mitchell is retiring, but the inference was obvious from many. Tallon said he and Mitchell will sit down and talk about several options for his future.
“When I first talked to him and found out what was going on with him, we got a good cry,” said Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, an All-Star in each of his two NHL seasons to date. “It’s a tough thing for a player. Everyone experiences it at some point, that point where you can’t play anymore. … Willie’s really lucky to have had such a great career and do so many great things.”
Mitchell and Ekblad have a particularly close relationship, almost father-son-like in some respects. In Ekblad’s rookie season, Mitchell and his wife took the then-teenager into their home and made him part of the family.
“I’ve learned absolutely everything I’ve learned in the game of hockey, in the NHL, from Willie Mitchell,” Ekblad said. “Learning to be a good person and a good player. Can’t thank that guy enough.”
Mitchell was known to have concussions in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and has spoken plenty in recent years about trying to make the game safer. Mitchell turned 39 last week, and would be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He was drafted 20 years ago by New Jersey, and also appeared in NHL games with Minnesota, Dallas, Vancouver and Los Angeles before coming to Florida and being named the eighth captain in Panthers history.
He’s played in 907 games, logging 180 points and 787 penalty minutes with a career rating of plus-119.
“He wasn’t captain by accident,” Florida forward Shawn Thornton said. “You could see it, even in the playoffs, he wasn’t playing but he was around, doing whatever it took, all the intangibles. If anybody needed anything, nobody went without with him around. He was the ultimate teammate.”
Mitchell wasn’t with the Panthers on Tuesday when they cleaned out lockers, packed up their sticks and headed into the offseason. He had been skating with the team at times in recent weeks, but didn’t appear in Florida’s six-game first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders that ended Sunday.
“I’ve played with Willie for many years now,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said. “We go way back. Just seeing him every day and knowing that he couldn’t play, it’s something that makes your heart hurt. Just knowing how much he loves to be around the guys, especially this time of year. Being part of a Stanley Cup run is why we play the game. It’s tough to see one of your good friends and teammates go through something like that.”
NOTES: F Jaromir Jagr said his agent will have talks with the Panthers about his future. Jagr reaffirmed that he believes the future is strong for Florida. “Sometimes you have to suffer to move forward in the future,” said Jagr, who will spend part of his offseason training again in Las Vegas. Tallon said he’s confident that Jagr will be back with the Panthers. … Another free agent, D Brian Campbell, said he would like to return to the team next season. Campbell has been with Florida for five years, not missing a single game in that span.