SUNRISE, Florida–Last Saturday night, one-by-one his teammates walked from the bench down the hallway to the dressing room after their wild, come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
While each of his Florida Panthers teammates dropped their gloves off to an equipment staffer, Willie Mitchell, the team’s captain, stood shirtless at the entrance to the room, with a towel wrapped around his waist offering a fist bump and encouragement to each player.
And night’s end, all the captain could do was celebrate, since he isn’t contributing on the ice.
Mitchell remains on injured reserve while he debates whether to return to action after suffering a concussion, the seventh of his career, earlier this season. He will turn 39 on April 23. He has been out of the Panthers lineup since Jan. 18. He hasn’t spoken publicly since.
But that changed Saturday morning when he opened up to Sportsnet in a lengthy interview.
“I don’t know where I’m at,” Mitchell admitted, matter-of-factly. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. When you’re blindsided like me, you reflect on things.”
It’s the dilemma many veteran athletes with a concussion history are facing. With only four games remaining in Florida’s season, including Monday’s at Air Canada Centre in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, time on this season, at least, is running out.
It wasn’t until three weeks ago that Mitchell says his health improved to the point where, “I got my life back.”
Mitchell claims he is now symptom-free, but in his multiple conversations with trainers, doctors, neurologists and other specialists, he has yet to receive a definitive answer as to what may happen if he sustains another blow to the head.
“Unfortunately, no one can give you an answer,” he said.
On March 24, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald that any decision to return to the ice belongs to Mitchell.
“Willie has to decide whether he can play or not,” Tallon told the newspaper.
“We want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, we want to make sure there is no permanent damage,” Tallon added. “But this is up to Willie. We want to do what is best for him. That’s the bottom line. The doctors have said they’re concerned with his long-term health.”
It’s a decision Mitchell has no intention of rushing.
“I don’t want to make an emotional decision, though,” Mitchell said Saturday. “I’m the captain of the team, so I want to navigate through all of this, but I just haven’t navigated it yet.”
One thing Mitchell is sure about is his belief that suspensions for headshots aren’t severe enough.
On Saturday morning, Panthers players privately expressed their disappointment over the six-game suspension handed to Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday. Many Panthers players felt that six games was not enough for Keith’s high stick on Charlie Coyle of the Minnesota Wild.
Mitchell insists players want more protection from head injuries, and he says the NHL could help by issuing longer suspensions to those who deliver blows to the head.
“The league needs to do a better job,” Mitchell said. “Guys need protection.
“There’s a concern with players. Guys are worried about it. Guys talk about it – the league isn’t doing enough to protect the players,” Mitchell said. “A couple of years back, a 20-game suspension was a message. You’d be missing games, you get a big chunk of money taken from your pocket – a quarter of your (annual) salary gone. Those suspensions had gotten the game safer – still physical, still fast. Shanny (Brendan Shanahan, then the league’s chief disciplinarian) did a great job. But it’s not like that now.”
Of the 27 suspensions issued by the NHL this season for player-on-player hits, 26 were for five games or less. The exception, however, was a steep one for repeat offender Raffi Torres, who was slapped with a 41-game ban back on on Oct. 5 for a headshot on Jakob Silfverberg.
“Players are worried and guys talk about it here in the dressing room, but don’t say much (publicly) because they think they’re going to get fined,” Mitchell said. “But I can tell you: players are worried about it.
“I’d like to think I’m a rational guy. I’m not an F-U guy. I’m not criticizing the league as a whole,” he said. “If my game slips, a coach will come tell me, it’s slipping. Well, on trying to protect us, the league is slipping.”
Over and over, Mitchell reiterated he “wants to see this through,” not wanting to abandon a group that just clinched a post-season berth for just the third time in 16 years.
Mitchell has his Stanley Cups and has his money. What he’s wondering about now is if he will have his health if returns to the ice.
He has reached out to Chris Pronger and Pat LaFontaine, two men who know all too well about concussions, and he has also spoken with his good friend Justin Morneau, who went through a concussion hell of his own after trying to break up a double play in Toronto back in 2010.
“It’s real life,” Mitchell said. “I’ve talked to the older guys. I want to know how these (concussions) have affected their lives. I understand the risks, but I also understand the rewards.”
Many have advised Mitchell, who believes he can still play at a high level, not to return. The rest of his life awaits him, with plenty of options beyond the ice. He’s a business partner in a real estate brokerage, and he is an investor in a sustainable fishery in B.C.
“But I’m the captain of this team,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want to do them wrong. I feel a commitment to ownership as captain. I feel a commitment to the GM. I feel a commitment to the guys in here. I want to see it through.”
“I can’t change my life. The damage (to my brain) has been done,” Mitchell said. “That’s why, now, I’m telling you that the league needs to protect players more.”
He paused, then patted the seat to his left, belonging to defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
“I want to make sure this guy and that guy doesn’t have to go through this,” he said. “Even if I’m not playing, I can show leadership within the situation. I’m talking to the kids about it. I want them to be thoughtful and educated, and God forbid they’re in the same situation as me.”
Which is why after games Mitchell stands at the end of the Panthers tunnel, fist-bumping. It’s also why he continues to wonder what to do next.
“I feel,” Mitchell said, “like I’m playing roulette.”