LOS ANGELES -- Willie Mitchell's knee injury was so mystifying that he didn't know if he'd ever play again, so an event like the one he'll take part in Saturday night at Dodger Stadium couldn't even be called a goal, a dream, or really anything at all for the Los Angeles Kings defenseman.
"I was out 17-18 months and I had no idea, to be honest with you," Mitchell told NHL.com.
DEFENSE - LAK
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 5
SOG: 47 | +/-: 10
Now that he's back after missing the entire lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, that his career is alive and well, the opportunity to play in the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game against the Anaheim Ducks (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS2) is almost like a bucket list item that Mitchell gets to check off.
He's 36 years old, a Stanley Cup champion and a 17-year NHL veteran, but Mitchell gets to live out one more fantasy under the stars in Southern California.
"I feel lucky," said Mitchell, who was soaking it up so much that he was the last player in the Kings dressing room, otherwise known as the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, as the media was being told to leave after practice Friday.
"There were a couple of guys from the NHLPA out there [watching practice], Rob Zamuner and Joe Reekie, and they never played in one of these. They're like, 'Oh man, how cool would it be to play in one?' I feel fortunate because those guys didn't get that opportunity and those guys grew the game in these markets so we have the ability to play these games here. Now we're the lucky ones who get to reap the rewards."
Mitchell, who has five points in 47 games this season, is admittedly going through the evolution of an older player, one who thought his career might be gone prematurely only to get new life.
He's been talking to friends of his, guys who used to play in the NHL and are now retired, about the challenges he's facing trying to connect with some of the Kings' younger players and getting up to play that Tuesday night game in January, the one in the middle of a season that is a grind, the one that mentally taxes an older player and makes him wonder why he's still doing it.
The answer he's received from just about everyone he talks to is the same.
"They keep saying, 'Yeah, that's normal,' even though it feels so not normal," Mitchell said, laughing. "There are days, just being raw and honest, that the schedule is a grind and you really have to manipulate yourself and prepare yourself mentally to get ready at certain times, but as you get older and closer to the end you get motivated to be in the moment because you know it's not that far away that you're going to be done."
That's why the Stadium Series game is so special to Mitchell. It's his first time getting a chance to be on the NHL's outdoor stage.
Even better is it's a chance that he once thought never was going to come because his knee was so messed up with no good answers in sight for so long.
"You talk to anyone whose come off a long injury where there are doubts of whether they're going to play hockey again and the first thing is for any of those people is what did they do to come back?" Mitchell said. "Well, they busted their butt to come back. That's what you have to do or you don't get back.
"When you put that much effort and time into trying to get back off an injury, you want to what?" he continued. "First off, you want to play your best because you don't put all that work in for nothing. You want to be part of everything and be significant. That's the first thing. Then you look and ask, 'OK, what special things are there at the ned of your career?' Well, an outdoor game is cool. The Stanley Cup is cool. That's what we play for. You're working for these moments because that's why we play, that's the only reason why we play.
"Playing outdoors in California at Dodger Stadium in front of what could be 55,000 people -- you'll get shivers for sure."
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