THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — Minor hockey players in Port McNeill, B.C., were in for a big surprise as NHL defenceman Willie Mitchell showed up to present them with a gift of helmets — just like the one he wears on the ice.
Before heading to the local arena, the Los Angeles Kings player said he was looking forward to a few hours of fun Thursday afternoon, when players from age four to 18 show up for practice.
"Hopefully I’ll surprise a few of them," he said after landing in his hometown. "It’s a small town and stuff always gets out but it’s going to be a bunch of kids — and one big kid."
Mitchell said he’ll be chowing down on pizza with the boys and girls and talking to them about the importance of protecting their heads from brain injury.
The so-called Messier Project helmets, which are said to be envisioned by former NHL player Mark Messier, are made with a liner of plastic pods and are more specialized than typical helmets constructed with a foam liner.
Port McNeill Minor Hockey Club president Scott Mitchell — who’s not related to his Stanley Cup-winning namesake but wishes he were — said he barely slept in anticipation of the secret visit.
"I was so excited, with all the details going through my head," he said.
"The kids are super hyped up about Willie," Scott Mitchell said, adding it was a big deal for them to root for their favourite player when he was on their favourite team — the Vancouver Canucks.
"There was a bit of a loyalty issue when the Canucks got knocked out but a lot of LA Jerseys have appeared around town in the last year since Willie leapt over and had such a great season last year," he said.
Mitchell went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Kings in the 2011 season.
"Him bringing the cup here was an incredible time for the community," Mitchell said of the big event in August. "We had 5,000 people at the arena and there are only 3,000 people in the town. It was a life experience for me personally and everybody else.
"Tonight it’s all about the kids and because we’ve kept it a secret we’re optimistic that we don’t get too many other people showing up that aren’t directly connected with minor hockey."
The NHL player who’s a hometown hero and a huge supporter of the club will donate 33 helmets to match the number on his LA Kings jersey, Scott Mitchell said.