FAR FROM MEAN­ING­LESS

Mitchell de­buts in reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale af­ter eight years in mi­nors

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

The night be­fore he’d been in Her­shey, Penn­syl­va­nia, play­ing for the Cap­i­tals AHL af­fil­i­ate and get­ting ready to go home and tend to his new­born daugh­ter but on Sun­day, Gar­rett Mitchell was on the ice at the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter.

Un­der­neath his hel­met, his cheeks ached from smil­ing all day. He was nervous, out there with Alex Ovechkin and Nick­las Back­strom for the open­ing draw, hav­ing been called up to the big leagues for the first time in his eight-year pro­fes­sional hockey career. He still had on a well-worn com­pres­sion shirt with the Her­shey Bears logo un­der­neath his new Cap­i­tals sweater.

Mitchell was try­ing not to stare too hard across the ice at Jaromir Jagr, the Florida Pan­thers vet­eran who played his first NHL game be­fore Mitchell was born when, sud­denly, ref­eree Wes McCauley pointed at him to get into the cir­cle.

Back­strom had in­ten­tion­ally got­ten him­self kicked out of the face-off so that Mitchell could take it. The 25-year-old tried to stay calm as he got in po­si­tion. It all hap­pened so fast.

“I don’t know if I even saw the puck drop be­fore I tried to swipe at it,” Mitchell said. “I guess I’m 0-for-1 on draws in the NHL.”

Sun­day night’s game was de­void of mean­ing for the play­off-bound Cap­i­tals but full of it for Mitchell, a 2009 six­thround draft selec­tion who has spent his en­tire NHL career in Her­shey.

Mitchell was called up Sun­day, along with fel­low for­ward Chan­dler Stephen­son, as the Cap­i­tals rested sev­eral starters in the fi­nal game of the reg­u­lar sea­son, a 2-0 loss to Florida. He was re­as­signed to Her­shey Mon­day morn­ing, a se­quence he’s watched dozens of Bears team­mates go through over the years but one he doubted he might ever ex­pe­ri­ence him­self.

“It’s eight years, and I think it’s two thou­sand, eight hun­dred-some­thing days,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of those things that, I said be­fore, ev­ery year there’s a new first-round pick, sec­on­dround pick, third-round pick. And with me be­ing a [sixth-round] pick in 2009 you know, it’s one of those things that I knew go­ing into Her­shey my first year I was go­ing to have to prove my­self the whole way. I think I pride my­self

on earn­ing what I’ve got and for them to give me the op­por­tu­nity tonight is un­be­liev­able.”

Ac­cord­ing to Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz, it was gen­eral man­ager Brian MacLellan’s idea to make sure Mitchell got the call-up. MacLellan, and the coach­ing staff in Her­shey, all felt that the or­ga­ni­za­tion owed it to him.

The Bears played the Toronto Mar­lies, the Leafs’ top af­fil­i­ate, on Saturday and Her­shey head coach Troy Mann de­liv­ered the news in the locker room postgame in front of the en­tire team.

Mitchell beamed, fight­ing back tears, as his team­mates hooted and pounded the benches in the locker room around him. He’d barely slept in days but, sud­denly, all that new-fa­ther ex­haus­tion was wiped away by a rush of adren­a­line.

Mitchell quickly went to call his par­ents, who were on their way to Penn­syl­va­nia see their 9-day-old grand­daugh­ter, Lake­lyn. In a stroke of luck, their flight had been de­layed coming out of Toronto and a help­ful air­line rep­re­sen­ta­tive, ap­prised of the sit­u­a­tion, rerouted them to Wash­ing­ton.

Mitchell’s mother Linda, dad Glynn, wife Talita, mother-in-law Christina and daugh­ters Lyla and baby Lake­lyn, swad­dled in a pink cloth with a bow on her head, were all in the stands Sun­day night.

“I was about to start cry­ing, you know? It was spe­cial,” Mitchell said. “I was glad they were able to come. Lake­lyn, our youngest, is nine days old so that was the first day out of the house and so for her to catch my first NHL game as her first hockey game, that’s pretty spe­cial.”

The Cap­i­tals did their part in help­ing make it that way. They sent Mitchell out on the ice alone at the be­gin­ning of warm-ups, a typ­i­cal rookie rite of pas­sage. Then, Back­strom pulled his move in the face-off cir­cle. Af­ter the game, Mitchell’s fam­ily came down on the ice and he pre­sented his game­worn jersey to his par­ents in a spe­cial cer­e­mony.

“The guys were re­ally great and I think they rec­og­nize the qual­ity of an in­di­vid­ual that he is, so good on that,” Trotz said.

Many of the cur­rent Cap­i­tals played for the Bears with Mitchell, who has been Her­shey’s cap­tain the past two sea­sons. Paul Carey and Nate Schmidt served as his tour guides Sun­day af­ter­noon, when Mitchell didn’t know where to go inside the fa­cil­i­ties, hap­pily show­ing him around.

The game was nearly cer­tain to be an­ti­cli­mac­tic, too, so from the Cap­i­tals

per­spec­tive, Mitchell’s pres­ence added a bit of sig­nif­i­cance.

“Ob­vi­ously we would have liked to get the win for him,” Jay Bea­gle said. “A great guy, I was here when he came into the or­ga­ni­za­tion and just, you won’t meet a nicer guy. So when good things hap­pen

to good peo­ple it’s al­ways ex­cit­ing. It was awe­some. He played great, and he looks good in a Caps uniform.”

Mitchell said that, to a man, his Cap­i­tals team­mates came up to him be­fore the game to re­mind him to enjoy him­self.

“Nor­mally that’s been me, you know?

When we have a guy coming up — ‘Just have fun with it’ — and I tried to have as much fun as I could and just take it all in,” Mitchell said. “It goes by quick. It’s one of those things where you’re try­ing to soak it all up and, you know, be­fore you know it it’s done.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals right wing Gar­rett Mitchell, a sixth-round selec­tion in the 2009 draft, had spent his en­tire pro­fes­sional career at AHL af­fil­i­ate Her­shey.

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