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Playing in Vancouver has extra meaning for Kings' Willie Mitchell

Saturday night's season opener will be the veteran defenseman's first NHL game since he suffered a severe concussion Jan. 16 while playing for the Canucks. 'It will be really nice to get back,' says Mitchell, who signed with L.A. as a free agent.

October 08, 2010|By Helene Elliott

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — Like his Kings teammates, Willie Mitchell is eagerly awaiting Saturday's season opener against the Vancouver Canucks at the Rogers Arena.

But the veteran defenseman has a special reason to anticipate this game: it will be his first since he suffered a severe concussion Jan. 16 while playing for the Canucks against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Returning to Vancouver enhances the occasion for him.

"It will be really nice to get back," said Mitchell, who signed a two-year, $7-million free-agent contract with the Kings in August. "It will be a lot of fun."

Mitchell couldn't be sure this day would arrive. For a long time he had to avoid noise and bright lights — and hockey games. That included missing the Canucks' first-round playoff series against the Kings.

"You have a physical injury when you have a concussion but there's also emotional because stress on the body gives you a headache. That's what a concussion is. You get stress in your life — what are you going to do about it?" he said Friday.

"So as much as it hurt me to do it I just kind of disconnected. Then I started feeling better. The L.A. series, I watched a little bit, casually, and then I started to get some phone calls from friends from the team who were penalty killers. And assistant coach Rick Bowness, who does the penalty kill. 'Willie, what's going on?'"

Those calls were prompted by the Kings' 10 power-play goals in the series, which the Canucks won.

"Sometimes when you're outside the box you see some different things," he said. "They called me for some advice and when that happened I kind of got engaged again, trying to help out in that way. I couldn't help out on the ice but maybe my experience and what I do on the penalty kill could help out with the team.

"I didn't really see a lot of the series, to be honest with you. It was my choice. I didn't want to watch it because I just thought that stress of not being involved was going to really hurt me as far as my healing process."

Youth Will Be Served

The Kings have six rookies on their roster and plan to have four in the lineup Saturday: backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, defenseman Jake Muzzin and forwards Kyle Clifford and Brayden Schenn. Forwards Trevor Lewis and Andrei Loktionov will be spares.

Veteran left wing Ryan Smyth considers all the youngsters precocious.

"It just seems like they've got some experience," he said. "I think they've all earned a right to be here and it's great to see. Time will tell in the game situations how everybody pans out but I feel every one of them has made a step and just made a difference in being here already."

Defenseman Rob Scuderi said he has been impressed with the newcomers.

"You look at it and sometimes you think, 'This team is supposed to take the next step. Maybe it's not the right way to do it.' But the kids in here are pretty mature," he said. "It's a pretty good locker room as far as chemistry. Hopefully they don't feel like rookies."

Muzzin, 21, played the point with Jarret Stoll on the second power-play unit in practice and will get a chance there Saturday.

"We're just looking to get shots through and get traffic to the net," he said. "Hopefully we get a lucky tip or rebound through to one of our guys or a screen and provide some secondary scoring on the power play."

Slap Shots

Clifford and Schenn, both 19, can play nine games before the first year of their contracts will kick in. The Kings could send them back to their junior teams before they play 10 games but Coach Terry Murray said he's not thinking of that. "I'm taking the approach that they're here, they're on the team, that they've played and deserve to be here through their good play in the training camp," he said. "And that's the way I'll continue to approach it and play them and fit into that specific role." . . . The Kings will wear retro "Forum Blue" and gold uniforms for the first of four times this season. . . . The game will be played on the 40th anniversary of the Canucks' first game ever, a 3-1 loss to the Kings. . . . The Kings are 17-16-9 in season openers. . . . Their average age is 25.4, the youngest in the NHL and more than two years younger than for the start of the 2007-08 season (27.7).

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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