LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell couldn't stand in place for long. He skated around the crowded ice at Staples Center, his bloodshot eyes scanning the crowd, looking for the only thing that meant more to him than the Stanley Cup he had just raised above his head.
He was searching for his family.
"They're the ones who supported me through all this," he said Monday night following L.A's series-clinching 6-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the finals. "I was just looking up at them, thanking them for sticking with me."
Just two years ago, Mitchell thought he might never return to hockey, much less win a Stanley Cup. As a member of the Vancouver Canucks, he suffered a concussion so severe that he couldn't drive, couldn't read a book, couldn't even bare to watch his team play.
His father, Reid, remembers a conversation they had back home on Vancouver Island that summer.
"I had a very intimate talk with him and he almost was breaking down, telling me, 'Dad, you know, it's so important for me to get a chance to take a run at the Stanley Cup,'" Reid said in the midst of the postgame celebration. "For him to be here tonight and have the Stanley Cup, I'm just so happy for him because I know how important that was. It's one thing to become a National Hockey League player, but I never realized how important it was for him to win the Stanley Cup. He's very fortunate and very lucky he's here tonight."
With Mitchell an unrestricted free agent the summer after his injury and on the downside of his career at 33 years of age, the Canucks offered him a one-year deal, wary that he might never return to the player he once was. The Kings put a two-year deal on the table and Mitchell opted for that security over a team he rooted for while growing up.
"Everyone knows my heart was in Vancouver when I was there," he said. "It's funny how they say you can't chase the Cup, it just has to happen. I ended up in L.A. because of my head and here I get a chance to bring the Cup to B.C. in Vancouver Island."
Challenges seemed to follow Mitchell even after he came to the Kings. After missing 25 regular-season games because of knee and hand injuries last season, the Kings slipped into the playoffs, only to blow a 4-0 lead in Game 3 of their opening-round series against the San Jose Sharks, giving away home-ice advantage and eventually losing the series in six games.
Even after bolstering their roster last summer with the acquisition of second-line center Mike Richards, an addition that helped them become a favorite to win the Pacific Division, the Kings failed to live up to the hype early on, forcing general manager Dean Lombardi to fire coach Terry Murray in mid-December.
Under the more intense leadership of coach Darryl Sutter, the Kings continued to tread water even into February, languishing as the lowest-scoring team in the NHL for nearly four months.
Then everything clicked in late February. The Kings made a push to qualify for the postseason as the eighth-seeded team and then proceeded to make history, winning 16 of 20 playoff games to become the lowest-seeded team to win the Cup.
"We faced a lot of adversity this year," Mitchell said. "We got one of our coaches fired, but we found a way to dig ourselves out of a hole after that."
Even as the third period ticked down Monday night and the Kings added to their lead with their final two goals just seconds apart, Mitchell refused to begin an early celebration. All that adversity was still fresh in his mind.
"We weren't naïve to the situation, but you never know in this game," he said.
Finally, with about a minute left, Mitchell said Sutter grabbed him by the shoulder and said, "Now you can celebrate."
He buried himself in the sea of jerseys as the final horn sounded, the tears streaming uncontrollably down his cheeks. When it came time to award the Cup, first it was team captain Dustin Brown who held it high in the air, then it was Mitchell's turn, a moment he long envisioned but never prepared for.
"I didn't kiss it, I just put it over my head," Mitchell said. "I don't know, maybe I did, I don't even remember."
Mitchell got a second chance to handle the Cup a few minutes later, and this time he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the sterling silver trophy. He headed over to his family, stopped in front of his father, and they both held the Cup over their heads, smiling from ear to ear as they gripped it together.
Mitchell had achieved his lifelong goal, and there was no place he'd rather be at that moment than in the company of those who helped get him there.