Dec. 29, 2009
By Larry Watts
He had to wait a couple of years, but John Mitchell is finally living out his dream.
It wasn't that long ago the Neenah, Wis. native was actually thinking about hanging up his skates. The forward had been released by the Indianapolis Ice of the United States Hockey League and had an offer to go down a level to play for the Cleveland Junior Barons in the North American Hockey League.
But Mitchell thought his hockey career was at a crossroad.
"It had crossed my mind to give up hockey altogether," he says. "Then I got a call from (University of Wisconsin head coach) Mike Eaves and he wanted to know if I was interested in playing in Madison. It had always been my ultimate dream to play one game for the Badgers."
Although hockey has always been Mitchell's primary sport, he admits he has been a late bloomer. He played six sports at Neenah High School, but hockey was the only one he stuck with for four years. He played soccer (two years), football (one year) and volleyball (one year) during the fall and, following the hokey season, he played tennis (three years) and lacrosse (one year).
Although he only played one season, his volleyball coach saw a bright future for the 6-foot-5 Mitchell.
"We actually put together a half-hour video and sent it out to Ohio State, Pepperdine and UCLA," Mitchell says. "I had always treated volleyball as something to do just for fun and didn't really take it seriously until I joined the team. I worked very hard after practice and made honorable mention all-conference, but I wasn't aware of anyone (college coaches) ever coming out to se me play. Once hockey started again and I hadn't heard anything, I think my coach saw in my body language where my interest was."
Mitchell admits he didn't have much of a hockey background, but he was still good enough to be selected for the Team Wisconsin senior squad, which played a tournament in Chicago. It was right before the start of the tournament when a representative of the Tri-City Storm of the USHL contacted him.
"I didn't even know where Tri-City was located, but he asked me if I would be interested in playing if I was drafted," he says. "I said, 'Hell, yeah.' I was so excited.
"The next day I was walking down the hall at school and my hockey coach waved me over. He told me I had been selected by the Storm in the fifth round. I went to the tryouts (in Kearney, Neb.) and made the team."
Mitchell's stay in Kearney only lasted one-third of the season.
"I was starting and just finding my chemistry with my linemates when they told me I had been traded to the Green Bay Gamblers," he says. "I guess that's where coach Eaves finally saw me."
Mitchell spent the remainder of the 2004-05 season and the start of the following season in Green Bay. However, one-third of the way through that season, he was traded to Indianapolis, where he was eventually released.
"Coach Eaves called me with the opportunity and I jumped at it," he says. "I would greyshirt the second semester and be able to work out with the hockey team. Then I could play the next four years."
Mitchell played in 18 games as a freshman, scoring his lone goal against Denver. And it is a goal he will never forget.
"Hearing that crowd of 15,000 in the Kohl Center cheering for you is awesome," he says. "I've had a lot of ups and downs in this sport, but that was definitely one of the ups."
He collected eight goals and five assists as a sophomore, when he was voted by his teammates as the most improved player. Last year, he doubled his output with 15 goals (sharing the team lead) and 11 assists.
During his time in Madison, Mitchell has added 40 pounds to his frame and now hits his final year at a playing weight of 220-225.
"A lot of eating, a lot of work with the strength and conditioning coach and a lot of time on the ice," he says. "I have stayed in Madison every summer working out. Most of my old jeans have gone to my younger brother or to Goodwill."
At 23, Mitchell, who is majoring in rehabilitation psychology and doing an internship with the Special Olympics, is one of the oldest players on the Badgers' roster. He was too old for the National Hockey League draft (players must be between 18-20) earlier this year, when five of his former teammates were selected in the first two rounds.
"When I was 18, I wasn't that good, plain and simple. I was a nobody," he says. "I may be older now, but when it comes to maturity and knowledge of the game, I'm right about the same as these younger players. I just didn't have the hockey background a lot of these players have.
"But the NHL is taking more free agents now, so I think this can work to my advantage. Playing for Wisconsin has really helped my profile. If I have a good year, this can all work to my advantage because I could have several teams interested in me and I could work a lot of angles.
"My dream was always to play in Madison," he says. "That's changed over the past year and now my dream is to play in the NHL. So I'm starting from scratch all over again and I plan to work my way up."