Kings' Willie Mitchell plans to donate brain

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
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FIRST PERIOD

When the news broke about Bob Probert last week, Willie Mitchell(notes) tried to look on the bright side.

“Good thing I don’t do that for a living,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is not a pugilist like Probert was. The Los Angeles Kings defenseman has been involved in 21 fights in his 11 NHL regular seasons, according to hockeyfights.com. Probert was involved in 233 in 16.

Still, Mitchell has suffered three concussions in his hockey career. The last one kept him out seven months. He knows the horrible effect that brain trauma has already had on him.

And if researchers found dark deposits of tau protein in Probert’s brain after he died of a heart attack at age 45 – diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that leads to behavioral and cognitive problems – what would they find someday inside of Mitchell’s brain?

“I told my wife already,” Mitchell said. “I know that Keith Primeau said that he was going to donate his brain to science. I’m going to do the exact same thing.”

Primeau, whose 15-year NHL career ended because of concussions, was the first former pro hockey player who pledged to donate his brain to Boston University’s Center of the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Chris Nowinski, the co-director of the center, said a total of 10 former pro hockey players have pledged to donate their brains, and since Probert’s results were released, a few more current and former hockey players have expressed interest in doing so.

“Hopefully they do sign up,” Nowinski said.

The center has diagnosed CTE in several former athletes, but mostly from football and boxing. It has examined only two late hockey players: Probert and Reggie Fleming, who played in the NHL from 1959-71 and died in 2009 at age 73. That’s a small sampling, and it’s a sampling of similar players. Fleming was a fighter, too.

A big question: how the Probert results relate to the concussions in hockey today, especially when they are suffered by players like Mitchell or the Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney Crosby(notes), who has fought five times in his six NHL seasons. Crosby was the league’s leading scorer when he took two hits in early January. He has missed 27 games and counting. He still has symptoms.

“I wish the conclusions from the Probert research were more clear,” Nowinski said. “He did receive a lot of brain trauma outside of hockey. But I think it’s safe to say the majority he received [was from playing the game], and if we believe that the disease is linked to total brain trauma rather than simply concussion numbers, I think it should raise awareness within the hockey community that the human brain is fragile. No brain trauma is good brain trauma.”

Mitchell can attest to that. He speaks often and openly about his experience with concussions – how he couldn’t hold a conversation, how he couldn’t handle bright lights, how he couldn’t drive a car, how he doesn’t wish that upon anyone.

“It’s just, you don’t feel normal,” Mitchell said. “You don’t feel right. You’re sick. You’re sick, right? You get a little snippet into life of feeling like you have a terminal illness. Not the physical aspect, the emotional aspect of it, too. I know what I went through.

“I could hate you. You could have done something to me, it’s the worst thing in the world, but I’d never want you to go through what I went through or what those other guys are going through. It’s not fun.”

Mitchell hasn’t started the formal process of signing up to donate his brain.

“I’m too young,” said Mitchell, 33. “Come on. I’ve got lots of life to live.”

But he intends to do it, and his wife knows his wishes.

“Why not do something like that?” Mitchell said. “Science is relatively unexplored on concussions. We’re learning as we go. We don’t know protocols. We don’t know all that stuff as far as healing it yet. And so any little bit of information that they can get that helps the situation would be great.”

SECOND PERIOD

He was 18. It was his NHL debut. The New York Islanders were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in October 2009, and during a scrum in front of the net, rookie John Tavares(notes) tangled with veteran Bill Guerin(notes), a good friend of Tavares’ teammate Doug Weight(notes). Tavares was living in Weight’s guest house, and Guerin knew it.

“Dougie said you’ve got to make your bed,” Guerin teased.

Welcome to the NHL, kid.

It’s funny to think about that now. The Islanders have made their own bed when it comes to negative publicity – going through a 1-17-3 slump early in the season, replacing coach Scott Gordon with Jack Capuano on Nov. 15, getting spurned by goaltender Evgeni Nabokov(notes) after they claimed him off waivers Jan. 22, brawling with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 11, calling up Trevor Gillies(notes) only to have him earn 19 games’ worth of suspensions for two incidents. But all that has overshadowed the maturation of some of their young players.

Tavares, 20, leads the Isles in scoring with 55 points, racking up 41 in his past 40 games. He has his own place now, an apartment right across the hall from 27-year-old linemate Matt Moulson(notes), who leads the team with 28 goals. Michael Grabner(notes), a 23-year-old the Isles claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers on Oct. 5, has 27 goals. The Isles are on a 9-3-3 run, and there is some hope at old Nassau Coliseum.

“We’ve kind of got this reputation of not many guys want to come or don’t really think it’s a great situation,” Tavares said. “Obviously it’s no secret we need a new arena. But other than that, I think you come here, you realize it’s a special place to play. We’ve got great fans. They’re here. They just want to see us win, and I believe that’ll be coming soon. I’m excited about our future and my future here, and I want to be here for a long time.”

Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, already has learned enough about life and the league to share some of his wisdom at the Allstate All-Canadian Next Generation Mentorship Camp, a four-day event for 40 top bantam players selected by the NHL Players’ Association. It will held in early August in Tavares’ hometown of Mississauga, Ont. He won’t be teaching the kids about straightening their sheets.

“It sometimes makes you better when you’re challenged that way, when things aren’t always going your way,” Tavares said. “It may not seem as easy. You may be frustrated. But I think in the long run it’s really going to help me. Even though we haven’t had the success as a team we would have liked, things are starting to turn around. We’ve been playing much better, but I know personally I feel my game has grown in a lot of ways.”

THIRD PERIOD

When Dustin Penner(notes) left the Anaheim Ducks for the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, he spent three months in teammate Matt Greene’s(notes) basement before he found his own place in the same cul-de-sac.

And when Penner left the Oilers for L.A. at the trade deadline this year, he ran into his old landlord again. The Oilers traded Greene to the Kings in 2008. “He still claims that there’s rent money due, but we’ll probably have to go to People’s Court for that,” Penner said, smiling.

Penner already seems at home. He’s back in Southern California, where he won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks and lives in the offseason. He knows Greene and another ex-Oiler, Jarret Stoll(notes). He’s playing with talented center Anze Kopitar(notes). And he has emerged from the darkness of the NHL’s basement.

“That’s probably the best part of it,” Penner said. “A lot of these guys are young and don’t know what it’s like. I went from winning the Cup to four years of not even seeing the light of day as far as playoffs is concerned, so it’s really a privilege to be back in this situation.”

It’s going to take some time for Penner to develop chemistry with Kopitar. But he has a goal and two assists in four games since his arrival, and the Kings think he can create offense by parking his 6-foot-4, 245-pound body down low. If anyone has welcomed him to the neighborhood, it’s the Kings’ defensemen. Better to have Penner in your basement or cul-de-sac or dressing room than in your kitchen.

“He’s tough to play against. I’m glad he’s on our team now,” Kings defenseman Jack Johnson(notes) said. “He’s got a unique skill set, that he’s that big and he’s that skilled. You don’t find many guys that are that big and strong and that talented with the puck. Usually some big guys, you can just let them stand there, and eventually they’ll give the puck to you. But he’s not like that.”

OVERTIME

One morning last week, I asked Penguins coach Dan Bylsma how new arrival James Neal(notes) would fit into a healthy lineup.

“A healthy lineup?” Bylsma responded.

It was as if that were a foreign concept, and for good reason. Crosby. Evgeni Malkin(notes). Jordan Staal(notes). Those three big names have played only two games together all season, and they are just the start of a long list of Penguins who have missed significant time because of injuries.

Yet when you look at the standings, the Penguins are only two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers, who lead the Eastern Conference (and have two games in hand).

“The way we’ve worked, the way we’ve played the games and battled, it’s a real credit to the guys in that room and how we’re playing,” Bylsma said.

But it’s also a real credit to the guys who have given the Penguins good depth – general manager Ray Shero and his staff – and it’s a real credit to Bylsma, too. I doubt the Penguins can go deep into the playoffs if Crosby ends up out for the season like Malkin, who has two torn knee ligaments. But I have no doubt Bylsma deserves the three-year contract extension he just received, not to mention consideration for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year.

“He’s always the same, old Dan – always passionate about what he does,” Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) said. “He just loves the game, and he’s going to prepare his team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or without them the same way, I think. That’s the way he approaches every game, and that’s the way the team approaches it.”

SHOOTOUT

• Although they unloaded veterans Francois Beauchemin(notes), Tomas Kaberle(notes) and Kris Versteeg(notes) in February, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 10-3-5 in their past 18 games and four points out of eighth in the East. “We’ve been on an extraordinary run to get back in the hunt,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said. “The problem is, with 15 games … the margin for error is almost zero in a race like this. We’re four out. That’s a small gap, but a huge hill. So we have no choice. We’ve dug a hole, we’ve climbed part way out of it, but now, if we don’t keep the pedal right, right down to the floor mat, we’re going to miss.”

• Do the Detroit Red Wings really want a top-four seed in the playoffs? Of course they do. But sometimes they wonder. “It’s a priority for us to finish as high as we can because we think it helps us at home, and yet I think we might have the best record in the NHL on the road, if I’m not mistaken,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. The Wings and Boston Bruins each have 48 road points, tops in the NHL. The Wings, Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes all have 38 home points, 15th in the league. The Wings have lost three in a row at Joe Louis Arena. They’ve lost four in a row overall (two in overtime).

In Wednesday’s column about the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident, I wrote that when the general managers meet next week in Boca Raton, Fla., they should talk about “slowing down the game.” This would have been a better way to write it: The GMs should talk about “harnessing the speed of the game.” I like the speed the league created when it outlawed obstruction and removed the red line after the 2004-05 lockout. But it must keep that speed under control to reduce the risk of concussions and catastrophic injuries, and the way to do that is through rule changes and stiffer discipline.

@cotsonika tweet of the week: “If Hulsizer won’t change his deal with Glendale, how is Bettman going to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix? Tick, tick ...”