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Port McNeill parties, Stanley Cup style

Willie Mitchell brings cup home

Willie Mitchell is a Stanley Cup champion.

And he's also a man of his word.

"I told ya I'd bring it," Mitchell told the massive crowd as he hoisted the Stanley Cup while standing on the steps of Chilton Regional Arena.

"And here it is." And with that, Willie Mitchell Day in Port McNeill was on.

"Behind every hockey player is a family, a community and an arena," longtime Port McNeill mayor Gerry Furney told the boisterous crowd of about 3,700 (Port McNeill has a population of 2,700) jammed into the local arena.

And no one knows that more than Mitchell, the big defenceman who helped the Los Angeles Kings win their first NHL championship last June. So when he told millions of people watching Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils on TV that he was bringing the cup to Port McNeill, he meant it.

"To win a Stanley Cup, I feel really fortunate," Mitchell said after spending hours posing for photos with the Stanley Cup and the thousands of people from Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Alert Bay and all over the Island who came to see the cup and pay tribute to Mitchell.

"And now to be able to share it with the people who supported you and helped you along the way is just really special. That's why I wanted to have it here in this arena, where I grew up playing hockey.

"I still remember sitting on those benches in the lobby and eating my salmon sandwiches while lacing up my skates. And coming in here during lunch hour at school. While everyone was out playing on the soccer field, I used spend my lunch-hours in here. So this is the perfect place."

With thousands of people lining the parking lot, Mitchell, his wife Megan, and the Stanley Cup arrived by helicopter. And after the parade into the arena, Furney quickly proclaimed Aug. 12, 2012, Willie Mitchell day in Port McNeill and presented the 35-year-old Mitchell with a framed golden key to the city, naming him a Freeman of the Town of Port McNeill.

"This is awesome," Mitchell said. "You know, some of my American teammates are amazed at what I'm doing [with the cup]. Over there everything seems to revolve around politics.

"In Canada, everything seems to revolve around this," he added while pointing to the cup. "And that's another reason why I wanted to bring it here. I means so much to so many people so I wanted to share it."

And share it he did. With family - 85-year-old grandpa Lester Mitchell was among the bus load which came up from Nanaimo and Deep Bay making several stops along the way to pick up more of Willie's family members.

"This is really amazing," the eldest Mitchell said. "I remember Willie playing [junior A] in Melfort [Sask.] and it's really overwhelming for me to see how far he's come. But he deserves it. He works so hard."

Willie's dad, Reid, who's a heavy duty mechanic for Western Forest Products in Port McNeill, also knows the value of the small community.

"Like Willie says, we're very fortunate to have the support of this community, and that's what makes this day so special. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, you need to have good programs in place and that's what Port McNeill has. And all those people who helped Willie along the way, are here right now.

And this is Willie's way to give something back to the north Island."

With friends - Port McNeill dentist David Baird lived across the street from the Mitchells and has watched Mitchell blossom from a minor hockey player to a pro.

"It's been a fun time watching Willie grow up and become successful," Baird said. "I remember when he was in novice and getting drafted by New Jersey was a real special moment, and now this. It's really great for Willie and the community. And he deserves it. He's such a great person."

Other friends remember how modest Mitchell was growing up, even when he played his first NHL game for the Devils and spent several seasons with the Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks.

"I've known Willie since he was four years old," said Dave Cote, owner of the local IGA. "And perhaps my best memory of just how nice a guy he is was when he was with the Wild he used to come back to Port McNeill in the summers and he'd come out in late summer to our weekly shinny game. And one night he played on a line with this one fellow and must have set him up for four or five goals. So when their line was on the bench, this fellow, not having any idea who Willie is, says to Willie: 'You know, you're pretty good, you should come out to our Wednesday night league in the winter.' Well, Willie just laughed, and said 'I'd love to, but I'm a little busy during the winters.' "

Mitchell's journey with the cup - each member of the Stanley Cup winning team gets the cup for a day - began Saturday night when he met it in Vancouver and chartered it to Port Hardy where he, the cup, family and friends were picked up by a school bus and driven back to Mitchell's off-season home in Telegraph Cove. Of course, they had to make one stop in between - at Mitchell's favourite watering hole, Gus's Bar and Grill - for some of Gus's famed pizza.

After a couple of hours sleep that night, Mitchell got up early, grabbed Lord Stanley's mug and headed out to do what he loves most besides hockey, fish.

"That was pretty cool," Mitchell said of his time on his boat where it was just him, the cup and ocean.

"Emotional, actually. That was a dream of mine."

Then, after he had posed for thousands of photos and signed thousands of autographs at the arena, Mitchell and the cup were back in the helicopter and off to Alert Bay to pay tribute to another community that Mitchell says he owes so much too.

"This whole area is very special to me. We're pretty isolated up here so I have a special bond with the communities so to get a chance to put a smile on people's faces who've I've known all my life is a pretty awesome feeling." [email protected]