Saskatoon Blades head coach Mitch Love looks on as his team takes on the Moose Jaw Warriors during first period WHL playoff action at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon on March 22, 2019. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Liam Richards)

Saskatoon Blades head coach Mitch Love looks on as his team takes on the Moose Jaw Warriors during first period WHL playoff action at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon on March 22, 2019. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Liam Richards)

Back with Blades, Mitch Love still calls Everett home

The Silvertips will honor the former player and assistant coach in a ceremony before Friday’s game.

In the summer of 2003, during the Western Hockey League expansion draft, 19-year-old Mitch Love returned to his childhood home in Quesnel, British Columbia, after a long day of working his offseason job. A voice mail on the answering machine sparked his curiosity.

The voice belonged to the general manager of the Swift Current Broncos, the WHL team Love played for at the time. He informed Love that he’d been traded to the Everett Silvertips.

Love distinctly remembers turning to his father, Harley Love, and inquiring, “Hey, where’s Everett?”

Love not only learned where Everett was — Harley told him it was just north of Seattle — in the ensuing years he learned to love the city.

And the city loved him back.

On Friday, in Love’s first game in Everett since he took the head-coaching job with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades in 2018, the Silvertips plan to honor the former Silvertips captain and long-time assistant coach in a pre-game ceremony.

“It should be a pretty special night,” Love said. “Having spent a lot of years of service there as a coach or a player, being on the other bench is going to be a bit of a weird feeling, probably. But at the same time, I’m excited to get back in there and see some familiar faces, not only in the organization, but in the community.”

Love was never the Tips’ most skilled defenseman, nor did he enjoy a long playing career in Everett — he spent just his 19- and 20-year-old seasons in Everett — but his passion and loyalty to the region endeared him to the fan base and the community.

The fans loved him for his crooked nose — bent to the side from so many fights — his ability to energize a crowd and his warrior mentality on the ice.

“He always brought himself to play every night,” said Zoran Rajcic, the Silvertips’ chief operating officer and a member of the team’s initial front office. “Those are the things you remember about Mitch. You throw him out there in the last minute of play and he’d block it with his face if he had to to stop the puck. … He would do anything for the crest on his jersey and that’s why he was so loved by the fans and his teammates.”

Blue collar, fun-loving guy

Born and raised in Quesnel, a small mill town nestled between Prince George and Williams Lake on the Cariboo Highway, Love learned the value of hard work early in his life. Love’s father worked at one of the local saw mills after his own career as a goaltender ended, and his mother, Melanie, worked several jobs while supporting young Mitch’s hockey endeavors.

Like many kids who grow up in western Canada, Love’s fondest childhood memories revolve around playing pond hockey with his friends and attending junior hockey games. The WHL’s Victoria franchise relocated to Prince George in 1994, when Love was 10 years old. It was while watching Cougar games that Love first dreamed of one day playing in the WHL.

He wasn’t drafted in the WHL bantam draft, but was eventually listed by the Moose Jaw Warriors after moving to Wilcox, Saskatchewan, to play for the Notre Dame Hockey Academy.

By the end of his 18-year-old season, Love had a reputation as a journeyman pugilist and not much more. In his final year in Swift Current, where he was traded in the middle of the 2001-2002 season, Love led the WHL in penalty minutes with 327 (47 more than any other player) and racked up 40 fighting majors (10 more than anyone else).

Mitch Love (top right) poses with teammates (clockwise from top left) Torrie Wheat, Jeff Harvey and Jovan Matic prior to the start of the Everett Silvertips’ inaugural season in 2003. (Michael O’Leary / The Herald)

Mitch Love (top right) poses with teammates (clockwise from top left) Torrie Wheat, Jeff Harvey and Jovan Matic prior to the start of the Everett Silvertips’ inaugural season in 2003. (Michael O’Leary / The Herald)

Nonetheless, Doug Soetaert, general manager of the WHL expansion team in Everett, saw something in Love.

“We knew we weren’t going to get a lot of top-flight guys, but we were looking for character people that would play hard and want the opportunity to play,” Soetaert said. “Mitch fit into that category.”

In Everett’s inaugural season, Soetaert assembled a group of players who were underappreciated in their previous stops, but embraced their opportunities in Everett. The Silvertips’ fan base, still feeling out a sport that was new to the market, adored that first crop of rag-tag, yet hungry, players.

None more so than Love.

“Everett was kind of a blue-collar town, and he was a blue-collar player,” Soetaert said. “… People gravitated to him. He fought people and he hit people and he stuck up for his teammates, and people noticed that. But also, his game improved. He learned how to play the game the right way. He contributed defensively and he contributed offensively, too. He felt confident about his game and he was a major contributor to our operation at that time.

After scoring just two goals in 2002-2003 with Swift Current, Love posted a career-high 12 goals for Everett in 2004-2005. The 6-foot, 195-pound blue-liner formed a top pairing with overager Bryan Nathe and helped lead the Silvertips to the WHL championship in their expansion season.

Mitch Love in a 2004 game between the Silvertips and the Giants. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

Mitch Love in a 2004 game between the Silvertips and the Giants. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

Not only did Love develop into a leader on the ice — he was an alternate captain in his first season in Everett before taking over as captain the following year — he was at the forefront of the Silvertips’ efforts to create a buzz in the community.

If Rajcic needed a player to visit Madison Elementary School, Love was there. What about a segment with Jeff “The Fish” Aaron on KRKO radio? Love was the first in line.

“Mitch didn’t say no to nothing that (first) year,” Jeff Harvey, the starting goaltender in the Tips’ first season, said. “That really helped us establish the fan base with the players here. … He really embraced it. Just coming from Swift Current, where it’s a different market playing up in Canada and fans want to watch you just play hockey. But it’s different up in Everett, where fans wanted to get to know Mitch the person. And he took the time to get to know the fans as well. He just enjoyed being around the people of Everett, which was contagious, right from the start.”

Love was uber popular with his teammates, too.

Harvey loved him because of his innate ability — and willingness — to block shots. But Love also exhibited a magnetic, outgoing personality, that sometimes was a little too much.

“He was a hard guy to handle,” Soetaert said. “He played hard on the ice and he played hard off it, too. We had to make sure he followed the company line there and his teammates kept him intact.

“But one of the things I will say about Mitch Love is he’s always been respectful,” Soetaert added. “It didn’t matter how hard you had to chew on him after a game, he was always respectful to people and also to management. I always get the pleasure at every opportunity I get to talk to him because he doesn’t forget about the people that helped him.”

Love’s larger than life personality never interfered with his two main objectives: Growing the game and improving his skills. For the latter, Love was rewarded.

The left-handed defenseman went on to play six professional seasons, five in the American Hockey League, where he collected six goals, 21 assists and 808 penalty minutes in 278 career games.

Those professional opportunities, Love said, wouldn’t have come around if he wasn’t traded to Everett as a 19-year-old.

Staying in Everett

As his pro career wound down, Love kept in touch with Soetaert and former Everett head coach Kevin Constantine and mentioned that he might like to coach some day.

When Love finally retired as a player in 2011, Soetaert brought him on as an assistant coach.

“I figured he could become a good coach, because he learned a lot when he played …,” Soetaert said. “(He) became a leader and was a fan favorite. The guy gave it his all for two years and we rewarded that by bringing him back in the organization as an assistant coach.”

Love spent seven seasons as an assistant in Everett, mostly working with the defensemen. He survived two head-coaching changes and a general manager switch during his time on the Everett bench, which ended the same way his Silvertips’ career began — with a loss in the WHL finals.

Assistant/strength and conditioning coach Mitch Love at home in a pre-season game against the Thunderbirds in 2011. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

Assistant/strength and conditioning coach Mitch Love at home in a pre-season game against the Thunderbirds in 2011. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

In his final season, working on Dennis Williams’ staff in his first season as Everett’s head coach, Love made a lasting impression on Williams, who still considers him a dear friend.

“It was a pleasure working with him in year one,” Williams said. “The one thing Mitch Love brought, and I didn’t watch him as a player but I know after hearing about it, I think his approach to his coaching is probably much like he was on the ice. He’s such a fierce competitor. He’s a relentless worker. If I watch any highlights (of Mitch) I can see he played that way. If you look at what leaders are, it’s about hard work ethic. As a player, he was a leader and as a coach he is a leader.”

In addition to landing the head job in Saskatoon, Love has risen the coaching ladder within Hockey Canada. He started with an assistant gig with Team Canada White at the 2015 under-17 World Hockey Challenge, then was named an assistant coach for Canada for the under-18 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in 2018. In December and January, Love will serve as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.

The trajectory of Love’s coaching career comes as no surprise to Soetaert.

“That’s the big thing, no one gave him anything,” Soetaert said. “All we did was open the door for him, and once he got his foot in the door, he learned how to become a really good coach.”

Love has moved on from Everett in a hockey sense, but his ties to the community remain strong. He still maintains an offseason residence in the Silver Lake area. And, perhaps more than any other player in the organization’s history, he has reached cult status in Everett — and he’ll be honored accordingly Friday.

Former Everett Silvertip Mitch Love watches youngsters take part in an agility drill during one of summer camps he put on in Everett. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

Former Everett Silvertip Mitch Love watches youngsters take part in an agility drill during one of summer camps he put on in Everett. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

“(Everett is a) great place to live and it’s just been an unforgettable venture in my life,” Love said. “I’m very grateful and appreciative of the opportunities, from being a 19-year-old to the time I left to come up to Saskatoon as a head coach. I’m not sure I would have been given the chance to play in the American Hockey League if I didn’t come (to Everett) as a player. To get the opportunity to be a head coach, you have to grow somewhere, and they gave me the chance to grow for seven years as an assistant.

“I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Silvertips organization.”

Josh Horton covers the Silvertips for the Herald. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshHortonEDH.

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