Backcheck: Mitchell Recalls Clarkson

Cup winner and L.A. King credits college hockey for helping him reach the sport's pinnacle.
Willie Mitchell helped lead Clarkson to an ECAC championship and two NCAA Tournaments.

Note: This article on Willie Mitchell first appeared at the start of the 2013-14 season. He had a goal and an assist Saturday as he helps lead Los Angeles in its chase for the Stanley Cup.

Former Clarkson star Willie Mitchell has enjoyed a bit of a restart to his career in the last week, returning to the ice after missing all of last year with the Los Angeles Kings.

Sixteen years ago Friday marks another milestone in Mitchell's career, when he first played for Clarkson in the inaugural Ice Breaker Tournament. In many ways, he says, the two years he spent in Potsdam helped launch his pro career that includes 723 NHL games and a Stanley Cup in 2012.

“I was a fat kid when I went there to be honest with you,” he said. “Improving my fitness and time management were really the biggest things I took from college. I didn’t know anything about training, I didn’t know anything about training, I didn't know anything about diet, before I got to Clarkson. I learned what I needed to do to properly prepare myself.”

Crediting Clarkson Coaches

Mitchell credits two assistant coaches at the time – head coaches now – for that physical preparation. He’ll face one, Ron Rolston, when the Kings meet the Buffalo Sabres this season, while the other, Jim Roque, is the head coach at Lake Superior State.

“I developed physically because I had the time to spend in the weight room and the right people there - Ron Rolston and Jim Roque, our assistant coaches, in particular - to teach me how to prepare,” he said. “If I was on a bus and just playing games all the time, I never would have had the time to improve physically. Don't get me wrong, it's great to play games, but that helped.”

That dedication to fitness helped Mitchell again in the past year as he faced a grueling rehabilitation to return to the NHL. The knee injury that had kept him off the ice since the Kings clinched the Cup in 2012 hasn’t slowed him in the early going – he is second to Drew Doughty in ice time among the team’s defensemen and plays more than 30 shifts per game.

The native of Port McNeill, B.C., is a veteran presence for the Kings and a role model both in his hometown and around Los Angeles. He’s not shy about his appreciation for the NCAA route, either.

“I'm a huge proponent of college hockey,” he said. “To get a great education and play great hockey at the same time, you couldn't ask for more. I developed physically, I developed mentally at Clarkson - it really is both sides. I learned honestly to become properly prepared to play pro hockey.

“The transition from college hockey to the pros, from a lifestyle standpoint, is one area I think college helped me,” Mitchell added. “We've got busy lives, busy schedules and you have to balance everything. You juggle that in college, between class, hockey and a social life.”

Class of Cup Winners

When Mitchell began that college career 16 years ago at Wisconsin’s Dane County Coliseum, he did so alongside two other future NHLers. Erik Cole and Kent Huskins were also freshmen on that Clarkson team – and both went on to win the Stanley Cup as well.

“I won't lie, Husky just broke in and won a Cup after playing like 25 games,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Eric won with Carolina. He's still one of my best friends in the world.

“As you get older you start to wonder if it will ever happen - with pro sports you have such a short window - but I was lucky enough to get there. It was nice to be the last of the group to win it. We've been very fortunate and very lucky, all three of us.”

That pinnacle, hoisting the Cup at Staples Center, was a long time coming. But it’s clear talking to Mitchell that the time he spent on campus at Clarkson was a big part of it.

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