In the grand scheme of things, Friday night’s Western Hockey League game between the Everett Silvertips and Saskatoon Blades doesn’t mean much. It’s one of 68 regular-season contests for each team, and given the fact they are in separate conferences, it’s not likely to be a game anyone looks back on as being the difference in playoff positioning.
But Friday’s contest isn’t about the result, the score or anything else that happens on the ice. This moment is all about Tips fans showing their appreciation for Mitch Love.
This is a true red-carpet homecoming as Love, the former Everett defenseman, assistant coach and lasting Silvertips icon, returns home for the first time as Saskatoon’s head coach. Love was hired by the Blades prior to last season, and Friday’s game marks the first time he’ll step into Angel of the Winds Arena as a visitor.
And there will be no angry barbs directed at the opposing bench on this night.
I had the good fortune to chronicle Love’s career with the Silvertips — which included his stints as both a player and a coach — and there is much to acknowledge about what he meant to the franchise and the community, and still does.
But there are two things about Love I appreciate most.
The first is the way he transformed himself as a player during his two seasons in Everett.
When Love was acquired via trade with Swift Current during Everett’s expansion draft in 2003, one easily could have interpreted it as a PR move. At the time, fighting was more prevalent in the WHL than it is today, and Love was the league’s leading practitioner of pugilism. With the Broncos in 2002-03, he led the league in both penalty minutes (327, 47 more than anyone else) and fighting majors (40, 10 more than the next most). He was a character sure to attract the interest of a crowd that was new to hockey and knew the sport mostly for its rough-and-tumble nature.
And Love accomplished just that, firing up the home crowd as he waved his hands for more noise following his fights. Indeed, he became one of the main faces of the team as it first captured the imagination of the community, then shocked the hockey world by reaching the WHL championship series as an expansion team — 14 years before the Vegas Golden Knights pulled off the feat in the NHL.
But a funny thing happened along the way: Love turned himself into a player. Before coming to Everett, Love was a bit of a sideshow. I remember he didn’t expect to have a future in hockey, but rather in something like professional wrestling. But under the tutelage of coach Kevin Constantine, Love discovered he had real value as a defender rather than just as a fighter. That first year with the Tips, Love saw his fighting majors drop from 40 to 12 as he became savvy about picking his spots. Meanwhile, he formed Everett’s No. 1 defensive pairing with Bryan Nathe.
Love was no longer a sideshow. He was a ringleader.
Love’s transformation opened the door to a professional career that spanned six years in the American Hockey League, the ECHL and the Central Hockey League, and ensured that hockey was indeed his future.
The second thing I appreciate about Love is the way he embraced Everett.
It’s normal for players and fans to form bonds while the players are part of the team, especially given how accessible junior hockey players can be. But once the players leave Everett, those bonds begin to dissolve. The players may spend important formative years here, but their hometowns are elsewhere, and when they depart, they find themselves playing for new teams that have their own adoring communities.
But Love, more than any player in franchise history, embraced Everett as warmly as Everett embraced him.
Love may have come from the small town of Quesnel, British Columbia, located 450 miles due north, but he turned Everett into his home. He won the Tips’ Community Relations Award both years he played for the team. He was the inaugural winner of the Everett Silvertips Hockey Booster Club’s F.I.E.R.C.E. Predator Award, an award I always suspected was created specifically to honor Love.
During his professional playing days, Love returned to Everett during his offseasons and further entrenched himself in the local community by holding hockey conditioning camps for youngsters.
So when Love’s playing career came to an end in 2011, it was no surprise that he returned to Everett to begin his coaching career. He served as an assistant with the Tips from 2011-18, outlasting two head coaches and one general manager — that’s how important he was to the organization. During that time he was instrumental in the formation of Everett’s alumni weekends, and he founded his charity golf tournament.
Is it any wonder the Tips are pulling out all the stops to welcome Love back?
I know that as a reporter I’m supposed to remain a neutral and dispassionate observer. But Friday night, whether it’s in person or in spirit, I’ll be standing in appreciation of Love, right next to all of you.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.
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