B.C.'s Willie Mitchell sees silver lining in NHL labour dispute

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Leave it to Willie Mitchell to find a ray of brightness in these darkest of days for the National Hockey League.

With the NHL and its players embroiled in a bitter labour dispute that will almost certainly lead to a work stoppage, the gregarious Port McNeill, B.C., native who nearly always has a smile on his face has managed to put a positive spin on the predicament.

“The longer this goes, the longer I can walk around and say we’re the Stanley Cup champions, because once the season starts, it’s a wash and it’s up for grabs for anyone,” the Los Angeles Kings defenceman­—who calls Vancouver home in the off-season—said with a chuckle. He spoke to the Georgia Straight after a recent skate at UBC, where he’s working out on the off-chance the two sides find common ground before the NHL–imposed September 15 deadline. “I have to ride this out as long as I can, because we’ll have a big target on our backs once we start playing.”

Still basking in the glow of celebrating his Stanley Cup win by bringing the fabled trophy home to the northern end of Vancouver Island on August 12, Mitchell knows the potential for a lockout is no laughing matter. Certainly, the Kings might benefit from a delayed start to the season, which would mitigate the effects of the so-called Stanley Cup hangover by extending the off-season, giving Kings players additional time to recuperate both mentally and physically.

But the 35-year-old knows he and his teammates stand to lose more than perhaps any other team in the NHL if rinks are dark after September 15. As the defending champions, the Kings are the only team in the league that gets to begin its season with the traditional raising of a Stanley Cup banner. That magical night won’t happen until a new collective-bargaining agreement is reached between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. And in a market like L.A., where the Kings became the toast of the town last spring, casual sports fans will likely soon forget hockey and instead turn their attention to the Dodgers’ push to the baseball playoffs, Steve Nash and the revamped Lakers beginning their pursuit of an NBA title, or any number of distractions available in Southern California.

Mitchell and the L.A. Kings became a massive marketing machine for the NHL by authoring a Cinderella run to the first Stanley Cup title in the 45-year history of the franchise. Not since Wayne Gretzky’s days in Kings colours two decades ago had the NHL been the talk of Tinseltown the way it was last May and June.

With a work stoppage now looking probable, the league runs the huge risk of losing the promotional punch of the scheduled October 12 Kings home opener—and all that goes along with a night like that.

“You have moments along the way after you win when you hoist the cup over your head, moments with family, with friends—you just have moments with random people on your day with the cup—and, for sure, one of those moments to cross off the list will be watching that banner go up to the rafters,” Mitchell said, frustration at the thought of what’s at stake evident on his face and in his voice.

“It’s going to be symbolic of all the sacrifices we all made to get there. It’s going to be a really humbling moment to see the banner go up and knowing your name is on the Stanley Cup. The ‘banner going up’ night is going to be special because we’re all going to see the cup for the first time with our names on it, and we’ll get to do it in front of all of our fans for the first time since we won it all.”

Whether the start of the hockey season is pushed back two weeks, two months, or even two years, the Kings will get their banner raising; it’s not as if the night won’t happen. But it’s likely to lose some of its lustre if the league is in hiding for an indefinite period of time. And although it goes without saying that hard-core Kings fans will be there to welcome their favourite team back with open arms whenever the impasse is settled, it’ll be interesting to gauge the reaction of the average sports fan in the Los Angeles area, who may have been turned on to hockey by the team’s run to the championship, only to find the Kings won’t be playing anytime soon.

Mitchell dreads the idea of his Kings missing out on the opportunity to pick up where they left off and having to watch the fans-team bond take a hit. Unfortunately, that looks unavoidable now. And it leaves Mitchell—who will remain in Vancouver until labour peace is achieved—feeling for those who’ve supported him back home and in Los Angeles.

He credited Kings fans with playing a big role in the team’s success last season, and he’s well aware those same backers are looking forward to being part of it again.

“I know the fans want to see us play, and we want to play,” he said. “Sure, as a team we may benefit more than others from a lockout, but first and foremost we’re all hockey players and we just want to play hockey.”

Mitchell really wants to relive the Kings’ crowning achievement as scheduled a month from now, but like all things in the NHL, it looks like that glorious moment will simply have to wait.

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