NEWARK, N.J.—At Media Day on Tuesday, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell was talking about his first trip to the Stanley Cup finals at the age of 35 when the subject of his injury history came up.
Specifically, it was the subject of Mitchell’s head. The blueliner missed eight games in the 2002-03 season with the Minnesota Wild when he suffered a concussion, then nine games in 2006 with the Vancouver Canucks with another. The last time Mitchell suffered one, in 2010, he had to sit out the final 34 games of the regular season, and Vancouver’s entire playoff run.
Willie Mitchell, left, is on a quest to win the Stanley Cup—but his work doesn't stop there. (AP Photo)
“Brain injury, let’s call it that,” Mitchell said. “I hate that ‘concussion’ word.”
It’s a point that has been made before, and a good one. For as serious as concussions are, the very word takes some impact off the severity of the injury. On Friday, Mitchell talked about his thoughts on word choice, and his experience dealing with brain injuries. What follows is his first-person account.
It gives significance to it. Where you talk about a concussion, it’s just like, “eh.” Or, you talk about the term “bell rung.” That’s a concussion. Bell rung? What the heck’s that? It’s a concussion. Right? Bell rung? “Oh, he got his bell rung.” Anytime you feel dizzy, headache, got your bell rung, that’s a concussion. That’s what it is. We downplay it instead of actually embracing it for what it is and giving it significance. The brain’s everything, right? You don’t have that, you don’t have life, you don’t have happiness, you don’t have your day-to-day. There’s not much good in life without it.
The first two were similar—four-or-five week episodes, where I started to feel better after about three weeks. The last one was more complex. They’re different, and I try to explain that to guys, how their different. Eight months, a year, it becomes chronic. It becomes like almost you’re terminally ill. You have an illness that’s not going away, because every day you wake up, it’s the same thing. It gives you a little snippet of people who live that in daily life. It becomes not only a physical injury, but emotional, as well. You’re dealing with something that you think is never gonna get better, and you’re turning everywhere to get help, saying “who can help me?” No one can. There’s no answer for it.
I’d try anything to try to get healthy. Hyperbaric chamber, I was doing that. Craniosacral work. I did alternative medicine, where I tried neural therapy. You name it. I had neural therapy on my neck, where they take your carotid artery, and they move it over to the side, and they freeze the nerves near the back of your neck for a quick second. It’s alternative medicine—the idea behind it is like starting a computer. Your nervous system, it’s the same way—if it feels the same way all the time, what do you need to get out of it? Sometimes, it needs to reboot.
(Neural therapy is) actually just procaine and water. They put it in there, and it freezes it for a bit, and restarts like a computer and you hope it gets the bugs out. A lot of times, the pain and pressure you feel in your head is nervous-system related. So I even tried that. It’s not fun, sitting on a table and having someone move your artery over, and shoving that needle in there. You’re 100 percent awake. It’s alternative medicine, but you’ll try anything when you’re in that much pain and you don’t feel normal. So, that’s what I try to explain to people, that it’s something to be taken serious. That’s why I talk about it, and that’s why I have all the time in the world for people like you who want to write about it. I feel like that’s my obligation after what I went through—to, like I said, protect my peers.
It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who go through life-threatening diseases and stuff like that—what they go through physically and emotionally. It allows you to appreciate life a lot more when you feel good. Your brain’s your computer, right? You tell it to write a story, it writes a story. You tell it to move a hockey puck, it moves a hockey puck. You tell it to do whatever you want, it will do whatever you want. When that ability gets taken away from you, it’s pretty darn scary. You don’t have the ability to tell it to do something, because it’s overheating, it’s overloading.
A concussion like that, of that magnitude, it’s almost like you’re autistic, on the higher end of the spectrum—the autistic kids, when they hear loud noises and stuff, it overloads them, right? It’s too much for them. That’s what a concussion is like. Too much bright lights, noises and stuff, it shuts you down. You can’t do anything. So you’ve got to go chill. You’ve got to go sit in a room, no TV, no reading. You can’t read. It overloads it. It’s like too many programs running on your computer, the computer slows down. You’ve got a bug, can’t run those programs. The brain is the same way. You get hit and have a brain injury, it’s basically a bug. It slows you down, and it’s not better until it gets better.
I don’t wish it upon any of my peers. I know a guy on the other side (Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador), I’m happy to see him out there. It’s a great story. With the NHLPA, we have a concussion working group. Bryce is on it, I’m on it. It’s pretty cool, considering he was out a year, and I was out eight months, we’re both here, playing the Stanley Cup Finals against each other. It’s pretty significant, pretty cool. Myself, I like to talk about it, because I think it’s important for the health of people, my peers and sports.