He was there in 2004, serving as a charismatic alternate captain for the Everett Silvertips, who, against all odds, fought their way to the WHL championship series as a plucky expansion team.
He’s there today, as the assistant coach for an Everett team that so far has swept aside all obstacles in its path, claiming every possible Western Conference achievement along the way.
Fourteen years span the divide between Everett’s WHL championship series appearances, and Mitch Love serves as the bridge.
Everett’s long wait for its return to the league finals ends Friday night when the Tips face the Swift Current Broncos in Game 1 at Credit Union iPlex, and the individual who unites Everett’s two Western Conference championship teams is Love.
“It means I’m getting older, I can tell you that,” Love said about being the link between the two teams. “It’s pretty interesting. You never know where life is going to take you, especially in the business of hockey. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around both sides of it in the organization, and I’m definitely grateful for that. I just hope the results this time around are better for the city of Everett.”
Love is the player who best symbolized the expansion 2003-04 Tips. He arrived in Everett as a someone known around the WHL less for his playing ability and more for his fight frequency. But under coach Kevin Constantine’s tutelage he became a first-pairing defenseman and a cult figure in Everett.
That season he finished with 12 goals and 15 assists in 70 games to lead the team in scoring among defensemen. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Western Conference championship series against Kelowna, setting the stage for the Tips’ unfathomable upset of the heavily-favored Rockets.
“I think the strongest memories would be the special bond that we had as a group that year,” Love said. “It was the classic underdog story right from the get-go, and that’s something that as a group we rallied around, along with the support of the community, and rode the wave all the way to the finals.”
The 2003-04 Everett team was comprised primarily of players acquired in the expansion draft. The way the expansion draft was set up meant the Tips selected on average about the 15th- or 16th-best player off each team’s roster from the previous season. But what the players may have lacked in talent, they made up for through their work ethics and personalities.
“I think the first word that comes to mind is ‘characters,’” Love said about the players on that team. “It was an interesting cast of characters.
“You had Riley Armstrong, who was a guy who came to the rink with a smile on his face every day, and guys rallied around that. There was Jeff Harvey, who was not your typical goaltender. He had more of a player’s mindset in the way he carried himself at the arena. John Dahl, Jeff Schmidt, Bryan Nathe our American captain, Ivan Baranka from Slovakia, you can go down that list and every guy brought something a little different to the rink every day.”
Everett shocked the hockey world, breaking every record imaginable for an expansion team. But the Tips’ trip to the finals was a brief one. Everett was spent after toppling Kelowna in the Western Conference finals, and it was swept in four games by Medicine Hat for the league championship.
“We played a very good and very talented hockey team in Medicine Hat,” Love said. “That year they pretty much steamrolled through the Eastern Conference. We had some battles in the west, and I think the emotion and grind of playing a Memorial Cup host team in Kelowna that year, coming back and winning the series, it took a lot out of the group. I’d never want to say that held us back in the finals; we ran into a good hockey team there. But it was a tough hill to climb.”
Love completed his eligibility with Everett the following season and went on to a six-year professional career. As soon as that was over, it was only natural that he he returned to Everett, where his name continues to be shouted by the home fans during the playing of the Canadian national anthem.
He was hired by the Tips in 2011 as an assistant coach whose primary duties were strength and conditioning. He quickly elevated to taking charge of Everett’s defense, a role he remains in now, and he’s since added the title of assistant to the general manager. He’s played a key role in the Tips returning to prominence; after seven years devoid of banners and playoff-series victories, Love was a part of winning three of the past four U.S. Division titles.
So how does this year’s conference-champion team stack up to the 2003-04 version?
“It’s different,” Love said. “The game is different, the athlete is different. I think our team now is more talented than the group we had in 03-04. That team had to win games a different way. No, it’s a different style in a different era. I think this team now is a better team than we were the first season, but time will tell in this series.”
Having played in a WHL championship series before, what advice does Love have for the players on this year’s team?
“I don’t think there’s much that changes,” Love said. “This is a new season, a new year, a new opportunity, but as a staff and an organization we’re treating it like it’s just another hockey game. People will hype up the series, but I think the process that got us here is the main thing. Take things day by day, shift by shift, and make sure the guys remain set and even-keeled. Staying even-keeled is our best chance for success, and that’s something I’ve stressed to the guys.”
And no one in the organization would know better than Love. He’s been there before.