by Dan Rosen || NHL.com
John Mitchell was smiling, but his excitement paled in comparison to the sheer joy his Uncle Bob was going through.
It was the summer of 2003 and the Toronto Maple Leafs had just used the 158th pick in the Entry Draft to select Mitchell, a center with great wheels out of Oakville, Ont.
While Mitchell was relieved just to be drafted, Uncle Bob was wondering if he was in heaven.
No, just Tennessee.
"My mom and dad were there in Nashville, but so was my Uncle Bob and when he was a kid he used to go over to Maple Leaf Gardens and be one of the little kids who would wait around and get all the autographs from the guys going in or coming out," Mitchell told NHL.com. "At the draft, each team had a suite in the rink and Pat Quinn and George Armstrong were up there. Uncle Bob was able to come up there with me. I mean, I was in heaven, too, but he was amazed with all of this."
Uncle Bob got his picture taken with Quinn and Armstrong and autographs from both. He even had a blurb written about him in the Toronto Sun, a story he still has hanging in his home.
He had his 15 minutes, and five and a half years later his nephew is finally getting his due in the blue and white.
After three seasons in the American Hockey League without a single call-up, Mitchell made the Leafs roster out of training camp and has shown coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke he should be part of the future of this rebuilding franchise.
Mitchell, who has five goals and 13 assists in 55 games, has played primarily in a fourth-line role. However, there are times when Wilson decides the 24-year-old warrants extra responsibilities deemed more worthy of a top six forward than a bottom six.
It’s at these moments when the Leafs start to see Mitchell’s potential.
"When I see during a game that he’s ready for a little bit more ice time, that he’s getting the job done defensively, I bump him up," Wilson said. "Considering he never played a shift in the NHL coming into this season he’s been OK. It’s mostly in a fourth-line role, but he’s capable of moving up in the lineup and will probably develop into a real good third-line centerman."
Leafs’ veteran Jason Blake told NHL.com he has seen enough of Mitchell to think he could be even better than that.
"I think the upside is even higher," Blake said. "He’s got great skill. He’s fast. He holds onto the puck. He’s patient. He’s got some great qualities. I don’t know what his future holds for him, but I think he’s got a real good upside."
Mitchell would like to think so, too.
He said he hasn’t talked to Wilson or Burke about his future with the franchise, but being a die-hard member of Leafs Nation growing up in Southern Ontario, Mitchell dreams about being on the team that brings the Stanley Cup back to the big city.
"That is something I really strive to be a part of," he said. "I mean, I grew up in Southern Ontario, my favorite was the Leafs and my favorite player was Dougie Gilmour. So, it would only be a dream come true if someday I can win the Stanley Cup in Toronto. After the season is over hopefully they let me know where I fit in and what they want me to do so we can go from there."
Mitchell’s budding NHL career can be attributed to the time he spent in power skating schools as a teenager. A necessary evil to become a dynamic NHL player, Mitchell said he hated going to those lessons but realizes they are the reason for his incredible speed.
He recently won the fastest skater competition in the Leafs own skills competition by racing around the rink in a time of 13.848 seconds. By comparison, Edmonton Oilers forward Andrew Cogliano raced around the Bell Centre ice during NHL All-Star Weekend in 14.31 seconds to win the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater Competition.
"I attribute a lot of that to power skating," said Mitchell, who scored 80 goals in four seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. "There are no pucks, so it gets pretty boring and I know it’s hard for a lot of kids to get on the ice and say, ‘Well, there is not even a puck out here and all I’m doing is moving my feet around.’ It’s something you have to do. There is a technique to skating and if you want to become a better player you have to learn how to skate at a high speed.
"I’m really happy that I did do the power skating even though I didn’t really like it. It’s obviously worked in my favor."
Put patience on Mitchell’s list of attributes as well. He needed a lot of it over the past three years to realize the first part of his hockey dream.
Mitchell played just down the road from the Air Canada Centre, at Ricoh Coliseum with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. He had 17 points in his first season, 36 in his second and 51 in his third. He went from being a minus-10 in 2006-07 to a plus-2 last season.
Still, the call from the big club never came. Mitchell wondered if it ever would.
"When you play three years in the AHL and you don’t get one call up, you start thinking, ‘Where do I fit in? Am I ever going to be able to play there?’ " Mitchell said. "I always felt I could play here but I never really got the opportunity. They re-signed me in the summer, so I stayed here over the summer and trained real hard. I came in to training camp saying to myself, ‘I can make this team. I deserve to be here.’ "
He still suffers from rookie-itus, a disease that causes young players to cough up pucks in bad areas of the ice and, in general, just make some stupid plays. Mitchell, though, is definitely an NHL player now and one that should only get better with experience.
Uncle Bob should get his autograph.