Florida Panthers Captain Willie Mitchell on Thin Ice

The Florida Panthers are in a desperate race for a division title but it now appears they may have to soldier on without captain Wille Mitchell, whose long term health could be in question if he returns to the ice.

Willie Mitchell (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Willie Mitchell (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

News of Mitchell’s dilemma surfaced Thursday  ahead of a critical contest against the Boston Bruins.

The 38-year-old Mitchell, now in his second season with the Panthers after winning two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, was brought in by General Manager Dale Tallon to provide veteran leadership to the Panthers young defensemen Dmitri Kulikov, Aaron Ekblad Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic.  But Mitchell has been limited to 46 games this season and reports Thursday are pointing to just the latest in a series of concussions that have dogged Mitchell’s career.

Mitchell, 38, has sustained a number of concussions over the past few years including one believed to be in January. Mitchell has been out of the lineup since Jan. 18, when he left because of what was initially thought to be a leg injury.

Later, it was determined Mitchell was suffering from concussion-related issues and he stopped skating.

On Thursday, the Panthers said it’s up to Mitchell whether he returns to the team or not.

In the final year of the two-year contract, Mitchell’s career — which includes 14 NHL seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with Los Angeles — could be over.

No Word from Mitchell

Mitchell hasn’t spoken to the media since January but it is speculated he may make known his intentions in the next few days, perhaps when the Panthers return home from their current road trip.  The Panthers face off against division rival Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday before returning home for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday so Mitchell’s decision could come the next week. If Mitchell decides to return before the playoffs, he could potentially be eased into the lineup for the final few games which all feature teams that are out of the playoff race but GM Tallon makes it clear that it is Mitchell’s long-term well-being that is most important.

Willie has to decide whether he can play or not,” general manager Dale Tallon said Thursday.We want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, we want to make sure there is no permanent damage. But this is up to Willie. We want to do what is best for him. That’s the bottom line.

The Bottom Line on Willie Mitchell

It’s not hard to imagine that the N.H.L. is keeping an eye on Mitchell’s situation, as a lawsuit against the league dealing with the concussion issues of former players is wending its way through the courts but, no matter what the decision here, Mitchell owes the game nothing. The former 8th round pick has played 907 games and has had the respect as a leader of his team mates in stops from New Jersey, Minnesota, Vancouver, Los Angeles and, now, Florida. The avid fisherman from Port McNeill on Canada’s Vancouver Island deserves to take his time for the sake of his health and the future well-being of his family.