Making the jump from U16 hockey to the USHL is a big one- just ask Lumberjacks defenseman Travis Mitchell.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound 17-year-old from South Lyon, Michigan, wasn’t expected to make that jump last season. A 21st-round selection in the 2016 USHL Phase II draft, Mitchell was among the final players drafted last year. Instead of letting that impede him, the 331st overall draft pick made the Lumberjacks’ final roster and suited up in nearly 40 games.
It would be fair to classify Travis as an underdog: no players drafted after Mitchell suited up for a USHL team last year.
Even Travis was surprised when he made the Lumberjacks roster.
“I went to Muskegon with one bag. Only enough clothes for one week because I wasn’t sure I’d still be around past that point. My parents had to keep bringing me more clothes because I kept on playing.”
A long shot coming into fall camp, GM John Vanbiesbrouck and head coach John LaFontaine knew they had to find a spot for Mitchell when he impressed in camp and during the preseason.
“Travis is a great kid with a lot of character,” said LaFontaine. “We really like his tireless work ethic, which is one of the reasons why we decided to keep him on our team. He is a great skater and his size makes his potential very high.”
Despite landing on the 23-man roster, Travis still experienced growing pains. The big jump to the USHL is challenging, and as a result, Mitchell was a healthy scratch for 22 games in ‘16-’17. The month of December was a low point for Travis: he only suited up for a single game all month.
“It’s mentally tough to think, wow, I’m not playing,” said Mitchell. “But it made me a better person and player. You’re going to have times, in hockey and in life, where things don’t go your way. It made me take practice more seriously, you have to battle and prepare to try and earn playing time. I want to play, every kid wants to play, you want to help the team win. But you have to earn it and that’s what I did.”
Mitchell’s patience would pay off in the end. After the Jacks traded Scooter Brickey to Des Moines in late January, a spot in the defensive rotation opened up for Mitchell to step into.
“We grew up playing against each other, so it was tough to say goodbye to Scooter,” said Mitchell. “But it also opened up a spot for me to play, which was exciting and a really nice opportunity for me.”
From February 3rd until the end of the season, a span of 22 games, Mitchell played in 18 of them, and racked up two goals and three assists. Comparatively, he notched only a single point in his first 20 USHL games.
A straight-A student in the classroom, Travis is also a student of the game of hockey. Under the tutelage of 1st-year head coach John LaFontaine, Mitchell learned not only the Xs and Os, but also the mental side of a mentally taxing game.
“Knowing that you have to battle adversity, that not everything is going to be served to you on a golden platter, that’s the biggest thing I learned,” recalls Mitchell. “It’s tough, you have to battle through adversity in school and in hockey, and find a way to get your assignments done on and off the ice.”
LaFontaine isn’t the only mentor Mitchell looks up to: Travis is the son of former NHLer Jeff Mitchell, who appeared in seven games for the Dallas Stars during the 1997-98 campaign.
“My dad was one of the biggest helpers for me. He was always there for me, even when I wasn’t playing and I could always ask him how to get better and what I should be doing differently. Was vocal about staying focused on school and hockey, important balance. He’s been my coach and a big part of my life and I can always go to him.”
Travis, who will be a senior in high school this year, is looking forward to this season, especially after seeing the play during spring camp.
“Hopefully as a team, we can do really well. Camp was really good this year. Personally, I want to start the season strong but continue my performance all the way through. Hopefully we can have a long playoff run this year and bring a title back to Muskegon.”
The road to that title begins for Mitchell on September 9th, when the Lumberjacks report to LC Walker Arena for the first time.