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NEWARK, N.J. -- A 23-year-old kid with only two NHL games under his belt, Willie Mitchell was one of the Devils' spare players when the team won a Stanley Cup championship in 2000.
Called up in March of that season, the young defenseman stuck around for the rest of the Devils' remarkable run -- filling in at practice when future Hall of Famer Scott Stevens needed a maintenance day, practicing with the other "black aces" the team kept around in case of injury. He didn't set foot on the ice during the celebration, nor did he partake in any of the parades or parties that followed.
After months holed up at the Turtle Brook Inn in West Orange, N.J., he packed up for the summer with hopes he could crack the Devils' roster the next fall and get his own chance at the Cup the following season.
|Willie Mitchell, who was shipped to Minnesota after 16 games in 2000, credits the Devils with teaching him how to be an NHL defenseman.|
Mitchell could not have foreseen it would take 12 long years.
"At the time, you probably thought it might happen a little bit sooner than it does," Mitchell said.
A former eighth-round draft pick out of tier-2 junior hockey ("How many times does that happen, right?" he asked. "I like to think they had a good scout."), the 35-year-old has a chance to bookend an 11-year career by winning the ultimate prize against the very team that gave him his first chance with the 199th pick in 1996.
A key veteran who anchors the Kings on defense, Mitchell is three games from earning an inscription on Lord Stanley after a tumultuous journey that has spanned five teams, two trades and one career-threatening bout with post-concussion symptoms. It seems only fitting to Mitchell that the biggest series of his life will come against the Devils.
"Your goal as a kid is to strive to play in the NHL, and when it happens you're kind of in awe. And then, you want to be a regular. And once you're a regular, you want to be a guy that makes a significant impact on a team. And then, you want the ultimate, when it's to win the Stanley Cup," Mitchell said.
"Yeah, it kind of comes full circle to be back where I learned so much and got my start," he said. "To do that against a great organization, great people and such a winning tradition. It feels good."
Mitchell, who was shipped to Minnesota from New Jersey after just 16 games in 2000, said he "owes so much" to the Devils for shaping him into the defenseman he has become.
Whether it was sitting between two of the team's most iconic defenseman -- Stevens and Ken Daneyko -- as a young defensive prospect (Mitchell still remembers seeing Stevens for the first time, describing him as "shredded as a mountain lion") or learning positioning from the likes of Larry Robinson and Slava Fetisov, Mitchell could not have been groomed in a better environment:
An organization that prides itself on defense, and one that produces some of the game's very best.
"If you ask [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello]," Mitchell said, "to this day, that's still what he builds his team around."
Mitchell learned to take pride in his stingy stay-at-home style of play, one that has enabled him to create and sustain a lengthy career.
He's come a long way since first breaking into the league, when the "shy but funny" Port McNeill, British Columbia, native seemed to teammates like "a deer in the headlights."
"He's got a strong shot. He's not a prolific scorer, but he's steady and he plays with physicality," said Daneyko. "That's a big attribute. You don't always notice him. He keeps the game simple, but he doesn't make many mistakes. Sometimes that can be the difference between a long career and a short one."
Mitchell has chipped in with one goal, one assist and a plus-8 rating while logging 25:34 per game in the 2012 playoffs, rounding out the Kings' second defensive pairing with talented rookie Slava Voynov.
He isn't flashy like Drew Doughty or part of a touted shutdown tandem like Rob Scuderi, but his contributions are valued on an eighth-seeded Kings squad that has surprised the NHL with its staggering postseason surge.
"Those are the guys you want to see, because they never get any recognition, right?" Kings coach Darryl Sutter said of seeing the veteran blueliner finally get his shot. "I'm sure that every older player that's never been in a conference final or Stanley Cup final, it's special for them."
Lamoriello is thrilled for him, too.
Even after trading Mitchell ("reluctantly," he said), Lamoriello kept tabs on Mitchell's career, whether it was asking about his former draft pick through coach Jacques Lemaire or Mitchell's friends and former teammates. A whole decade after parting with him in a deal to acquire Sean O'Donnell, Lamoriello still likes to know he's flourishing.
"Willie is the type of guy that grows on you," Lamoriello told ESPNNewYork.com. "Always smiling, loves the game, it's great to see."
"We really take pride in players we've drafted and want them all to have success," Lamoriello said.
Well, just as long as it's not against the Devils.
"No," Lamoriello conceded with a laugh. "You know better than that."