The night before he’d been in Hershey, Pennsylvania, playing for the Capitals AHL affiliate and getting ready to go home and tend to his newborn daughter but on Sunday, Garrett Mitchell was on the ice at the Verizon Center.
Underneath his helmet, his cheeks ached from smiling all day. He was nervous, out there with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the opening draw, having been called up to the big leagues for the first time in his eight-year professional hockey career. He still had on a well-worn compression shirt with the Hershey Bears logo underneath his new Capitals sweater.
Mitchell was trying not to stare too hard across the ice at Jaromir Jagr, the Florida Panthers veteran who played his first NHL game before Mitchell was born when, suddenly, referee Wes McCauley pointed at him to get into the circle.
Backstrom had intentionally gotten himself kicked out of the face-off so that Mitchell could take it. The 25-year-old tried to stay calm as he got in position. It all happened so fast.
“I don’t know if I even saw the puck drop before I tried to swipe at it,” Mitchell said. “I guess I’m 0-for-1 on draws in the NHL.”
Sunday night’s game was devoid of meaning for the playoff-bound Capitals but full of it for Mitchell, a 2009 sixth-round draft selection who has spent his entire NHL career in Hershey.
Mitchell was called up Sunday, along with fellow forward Chandler Stephenson, as the Capitals rested several starters in the final game of the regular season, a 2-0 loss to Florida. He was reassigned to Hershey Monday morning, a sequence he’s watched dozens of Bears teammates go through over the years but one he doubted he might ever experience himself.
“It’s eight years, and I think it’s two thousand, eight hundred-something days,” Mitchell said. “It’s one of those things that, I said before, every year there’s a new first-round pick, second-round pick, third-round pick. And with me being a [sixth-round] pick in 2009 you know, it’s one of those things that I knew going into Hershey my first year I was going to have to prove myself the whole way. I think I pride myself on earning what I’ve got and for them to give me the opportunity tonight is unbelievable.”
According to Capitals coach Barry Trotz, it was general manager Brian MacLellan’s idea to make sure Mitchell got the call-up. MacLellan, and the coaching staff in Hershey, all felt that the organization owed it to him.
The Bears played the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ top affiliate, on Saturday and Hershey head coach Troy Mann delivered the news in the locker room postgame in front of the entire team.
Mitchell beamed, fighting back tears, as his teammates hooted and pounded the benches in the locker room around him. He’d barely slept in days but, suddenly, all that new-father exhaustion was wiped away by a rush of adrenaline.
Mitchell quickly went to call his parents, who were on their way to Pennsylvania see their 9-day-old granddaughter, Lakelyn. In a stroke of luck, their flight had been delayed coming out of Toronto and a helpful airline representative, apprised of the situation, rerouted them to Washington.
Mitchell’s mother Linda, dad Glynn, wife Talita, mother-in-law Christina and daughters Lyla and baby Lakelyn, swaddled in a pink cloth with a bow on her head, were all in the stands Sunday night.
“I was about to start crying, you know? It was special,” Mitchell said. “I was glad they were able to come. Lakelyn, our youngest, is nine days old so that was the first day out of the house and so for her to catch my first NHL game as her first hockey game, that’s pretty special.”
The Capitals did their part in helping make it that way. They sent Mitchell out on the ice alone at the beginning of warm-ups, a typical rookie rite of passage. Then, Backstrom pulled his move in the face-off circle. After the game, Mitchell’s family came down on the ice and he presented his game-worn jersey to his parents in a special ceremony.
“The guys were really great and I think they recognize the quality of an individual that he is, so good on that,” Trotz said.
Many of the current Capitals played for the Bears with Mitchell, who has been Hershey’s captain the past two seasons. Paul Carey and Nate Schmidt served as his tour guides Sunday afternoon, when Mitchell didn’t know where to go inside the facilities, happily showing him around.
The game was nearly certain to be anticlimactic, too, so from the Capitals perspective, Mitchell’s presence added a bit of significance.
“ Obviously we would have liked to get the win for him,” Jay Beagle said. “A great guy, I was here when he came into the organization and just, you won’t meet a nicer guy. So when good things happen to good people it’s always exciting. It was awesome. He played great, and he looks good in a Caps uniform.”
Mitchell said that, to a man, his Capitals teammates came up to him before the game to remind him to enjoy himself.
“Normally that’s been me, you know? When we have a guy coming up - ‘Just have fun with it’ - and I tried to have as much fun as I could and just take it all in,” Mitchell said. “It goes by quick. It’s one of those things where you’re trying to soak it all up and, you know, before you know it it’s done.”