Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell seen here against the San… (Tony Avelar / Associated…)
When Willie Mitchell suffered a concussion almost two years ago, getting back to hockey became secondary to living a normal life.
"It's tough. You can't do anything. You can't read. You can't drive your car. It hurts," said Mitchell, the Kings defenseman who was then with the Vancouver Canucks. "Living in pain, it's almost like, I always say, it's like a snippet into a terminal illness, so to speak. It gives you a little snippet because not only physically it bothers you. But it's also the emotional aspect of it, as well as that.
"You wake up every day and you don't feel better and that can take its toll."
His cabin in remote British Columbia provided at least a physical escape from fans' constant questions about his future. He didn't know what to tell them, and that just increased his stress.
"Everywhere I'd walk: 'How's your head? How's your head?' " said the 34-year-old Mitchell, who is in his second season with the Kings. "That's the last thing I wanted to talk about. I just wanted to disconnect from that. So that's what I did. I went to my place in the middle of nowhere in the forest and just chilled."
The pressure didn't ease until after the Canucks were eliminated from the playoffs by Chicago in May 2010. Mitchell described his improvement, saying: "All of a sudden, boom," as he soon was able to resume daily activities without pain or discomfort.
The Kings were the only team willing to give him more than a one-year deal, signing him for two years and $7 million. Mitchell has been generous about sharing his concussion story, speaking with reporters at length recently after practice. He was also able to offer reassurance and a personal perspective to teammate Mike Richards, who had been sidelined with a concussion.
"Think about it, right? The human body is really not supposed to go into those areas," Mitchell said. "We play this great game. I get in a car wreck six times a night. I do.
"How many people get in a car wreck in their life? I get in a car wreck six times a night, 82 times a year plus playoffs. And this is my 13th season at a professional level."
At one time, many wondered if he would find his way back to the NHL.
"He didn't look normal, physically," said Canucks President and General Manager Mike Gillis. "His eyes. His mannerisms. It wasn't the same Willie that we knew. He looked different. He didn't start looking normal until I saw him in the summertime.
"Willie is a really good person. I'm glad it's worked out for him There was a period of time there where I know we were wondering if he would play again because it lingered so long."
Recovery from a concussion can be difficult on many levels. Gillis referred to the extra level of attention and scrutiny Mitchell faced in Vancouver.
"The pressure to get back and play, the internal pressure that these guys put on themselves is something that can't be evaluated very well," Gillis said. "And they're big, strong guys and they're not used to these kind of injuries where there is nothing visible.
"You don't have stitches or you haven't been operated on or you don't have an X-ray showing a broken bone. A lot of them have a really difficult time with the symptoms that come with it."