Mitch Love made a name for himself as a rough and tumble defenceman in the Western Hockey League (WHL), and he is doing the same now as head coach of the Saskatoon Blades.
A product of the town of Quesnel, BC, a town located a little more than 100 kilometers south of Prince George, Love has garnered respect across hockey circles. The same work ethic that drove him throughout his five-year career as a player and a fan-favourite in the league has now established him as one of the league’s rising stars in the coaching ranks in the WHL and on the international stage.
Love was a physical defenceman who played in the WHL from 1999-2005 with three clubs. He broke in first with the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he played 69 games in three seasons, including a two-game stint as a 15-year old in 1999-2000. After that came two seasons and 122 games as well as 16 playoff games with the Swift Current Broncos. Never one to back down, Love amassed 459 penalty minutes in those two campaigns, including a league-leading 327 in 2002-03.
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However, it was at his third stop in the league, in Everett, where Love made his greatest impression. He was traded in the summer of 2003 to the expansion Everett Silvertips and contributed to a historic season in the Puget Sound. The Silvertips set 10 WHL or CHL expansion team records, including wins (35) and points (80), and were the first WHL expansion team to play in the league final.
Love was a key contributor to the team’s playoff run, chipping in offensively with two goals and eight points. His playoffs were highlighted by scoring the game-winning goal of game one of the Western Conference Final against the Kelowna Rockets. The Silvertips marched to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Final before the ride ultimately stopped just short as they fell in four-straight to the Medicine Hat Tigers, who featured Clarke MacArthur up front and Cam Barker on defence.
Love registered 21 goals and 56 points in 129 games in his final two WHL seasons in Everett. After graduating from the WHL in 2005, he signed in the American Hockey League (AHL), embarking on a six-season professional career, five of those taking place in the AHL.
Upon retirement as a player following 2010-11, Love returned immediately to the scene of his best success in junior; Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. He was hired as a strength and conditioning coach for the Silvertips in 2011-12, and was elevated to assistant coach the next season.
Love spent seven seasons (2011-18) coaching in Everett, surviving multiple head coaching changes. In his final season as Silvertips assistant coach, he served under current head coach Dennis Williams who was in his first season.
In the summer of 2018, Love received his first head coaching job with the Saskatoon Blades. Though he was a savvy veteran of the league, it was a new challenge that sent him back to the province of Saskatchewan, where his WHL playing career began.
“We’re thrilled to have Mitch commit long term to the Blades,” said Blades general manager Colin Priestner in the club’s announcement of Love’s hiring in 2018. “We believe he is one of the top young coaches in the country and will bring a great deal of experience in the WHL to our players. His teams have been extremely hard working, disciplined and accountable and we believe he will bring a ton of passion to our team as we look to take the next step as a club,” Priestner said.
Love inherited a talented Blades group that was led up front by Kirby Dach, who would become the third-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, going to the Chicago Blackhawks. Overage defenceman Dawson Davidson led the league in scoring by a defenceman, and Nolan Maier turned in a strong season between the pipes. The Blades’ 45 wins and 98 points were good for second place in the Eastern Conference before they ultimately lost out in the second round of the playoffs in six games to the eventual league champion Prince Albert Raiders.
Campaign number two for Love in Saskatoon was a bigger project, after the team graduated or traded their top-five scorers from the previous season. He was tasked with finding the right roles for a younger group that would allow their new nucleus of stars to step into newfound leadership roles. The transition took most of the first half to tangibly start to take effect, but once it did, combined with contributions from key veterans, the Blades were once again a factor in the East Division and the Eastern Conference, and clinched a playoff spot prior to the COVID-19 stoppage in March.
“The Blades are Mitch Love’s team, there’s no doubt about it,” said Blades radio play-by-play broadcaster Les Lazaruk in an interview for The Hockey Writers. “His ideologies, his hockey feelings and thoughts are on this team on a day to day basis,” Lazaruk said.
Love made his first visit to Everett as an opposing head coach on Nov. 22, 2019, and received a hero’s welcome when the Blades stopped in as part of their U.S. Division road swing.
The Silvertips retired and raised Love’s jersey to the rafters in a pregame ceremony in honour of his nine seasons as a player and coach with the club.
“No other Silvertips alum has had the kind of impact that you have had on the organization and team throughout the years,” said former Silvertips player Brennan Sonne in a pregame tribute video to Love. Sonne served as an assistant coach with Love for three seasons in Everett from 2014-17.
Another new chapter that opened in Love’s career this past season was his appointment to Canada’s staff as an assistant coach for the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. It was a testament to Love’s abilities and earned respect as a coach in his eighth season in junior hockey, and just his second as a head coach.
It was not the first time that Love had coached internationally. He previously served as an assistant coach at the 2015 and 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and won a gold medal with Team Canada White in 2015.
Lazaruk said that his duties for Hockey Canada did pose a distraction as he had to leave the Blades for brief periods of time on multiple occasions for assignments in preparation for the World Juniors.
“(Love) did as well as he could have done,” Lazaruk said. “He went off to watch the Canada Russia Series game that was played here and also went to Ontario for a game and left the team in the hands of (assistant coaches) Ryan Marsh and Ryan Keller,” he said, adding that Love was required to attend frequent meetings and conference calls with Hockey Canada and other coaches concerning the World Junior squad.
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Love was in the Czech Republic at the World Juniors for close to a month from mid-December until early January, but came back with a gold medal. Lazaruk remembered Love returning invigorated for the second half in Saskatoon.
“Once he was back (in Saskatoon) and somewhat refreshed from the gold medal win after being in that pressure-cooker with Team Canada, he was able to just grab the reins and take off with the Blades,” Lazaruk recalled.
Hockey Canada gave their stamp of approval, recently announcing that Love has been invited to return in the same capacity for the 2021 World Juniors, slated to take place in Edmonton and Red Deer.
“Receiving this opportunity today from Hockey Canada management and head coach Andre Tourigny is a tremendous honour and privilege,” Love said in the Blades announcement. “I’m extremely excited to work with this group of players and staff towards the ultimate goal of winning a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship,” he said.
Love will serve on the staff of head coach Andre Tourigny, an assistant in 2020 who was elevated to head coach for 2021.
Making His Mark
Likely the most accomplished head coach in Blades history, Lorne Molleken was due to have his name added to the club’s Builders Banner and raised to the rafters of SaskTel Centre on March 21 until the COVID-19 stoppage took effect.
Still young at age 35, Love has already had an excellent beginning to his own coaching career.
In the new era of hockey, he fits hockey’s overall trend towards youth, innovation, and can relate to the new generation of players, all while maintaining an appreciation for the physical brand of hockey that made him successful as a player. Love is unquestionably a hockey grinder who has paid his dues and knows the ins and outs of what it takes to be successful in the league.
Armed with experiences and a diligent work ethic, Love appears to have all the tools to author a great second chapter with the Blades, and it would not be surprising to see more chapters written from higher up the hockey ladder before all is said and done.