The Florida Panthers are little more than a week away from returning to the playoffs for first time in four seasons, but even if Florida were to win the Eastern Conference and capture the Stanley Cup, there’s concern their captain, Willie Mitchell, won’t be there to hoist the sport’s greatest prize.
Mitchell, 38, has been out of the Panthers’ lineup since Jan. 22 and is currently battling through symptoms related to the several concussions he’s dealt with over the course of his career. Mitchell hasn’t spoken publicly during his recovery and it didn’t appear he would talk with media before he made a decision about whether or not he would return to action — a choice he has yet to make.
However, with the end of the regular season near, the veteran blueliner opened up to Sportsnet’s Arash Madani. Mitchell said that while he’s unsure of his future, he knows one thing for sure: the players are worried about their safety and whether or not the NHL is doing enough to protect the players.
“The league needs to do a better job,” Mitchell told Madani. “Guys need protection…There’s a concern with players. Guys are worried about it. Guys talk about it – the league isn’t doing enough to protect the players.”
Mitchell said the discipline being handed down now has lessened from what the bans were under Brendan Shanahan, who was for a few seasons the face of the NHL’s player safety department. Shanahan relinquished that role in 2014 to join the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office, and Mitchell said the suspensions don’t have the same impact now as they did under Shanahan. Messages were being sent then that aren’t being sent now, Mitchell told Madani.
“I’m not criticizing the league as a whole,” Mitchell told Madani. “If my game slips, a coach will come tell me, it’s slipping. Well, on trying to protect us, the league is slipping.”
Mitchell’s comments come on the heels of a controversial six-game suspension to Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith for a stick-swinging incident. The much talked about ban was felt by some to be far too lenient.
When it comes to his own health, though, Mitchell told Madani that he knows there’s nothing that can be done about the concussions he’s already suffered. Mitchell said the damage has been done and he understands the risks of returning to action, should he choose to come back. Mitchell told Madani that a number of former players have said the smart choice would be to hang up his skates for good. With each passing game, it seems increasingly likely that will be the case, though Mitchell told Madani he’s still working through the decision.
It sounds as though Mitchell wants to leave an impression whether he chooses to return for the Panthers’ post-season run or not, though. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be suiting up, and it doesn’t even mean that impression will only impact the Panthers.
“I want to make sure this guy and that guy doesn’t have to go through this,” Mitchell told Madani. “Even if I’m not playing, I can show leadership within the situation. I’m talking to the kids about it. I want them to be thoughtful and educated, and God forbid they’re in the same situation as me.”