Washington Capitals assistant coach Mitch Love was not known for his skill and finesse as a hockey player. His first season playing hockey was with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League (WHL). But even making that team was a struggle for him. After playing just two games in the 1999-00 season, Love played 57 games the following year and only had nine points (five goals, four assists) while racking up 97 penalty minutes (PIMS).
“It was a tough league. You had to stick up for yourself. I wasn’t a great player. I was a stay at home defenseman that tried to play the game honestly and protect my teammates when needed,” Love said on the Break the Ice podcast with Mike Vogel. “I had to find a certain skill set that I felt allowed me to survive in terms of the league at that time.”
That skill that the Quesnel, BC native is alluding to is dropping the gloves. It was a reputation that carried him throughout his playing career.
“During that time, it was a chance for me to showcase my skill set in that area and possibly advance my career to the next level,” Love said. “Whether it’s American Hockey League or National Hockey League. I think you get into that scenario you start to earn a bit of a reputation. I was trying to get noticed as a young player to the scouts in the National Hockey League, and, you know, but the game has changed probably for the right.”
After six seasons in the WHL, which saw him put up a total of 901 PIMS, Love eventually got promoted to the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters for the 2005-06 season. He played 27 games and tallied only four assists but continued his blue-collar reputation in the pro ranks by having 68 PIMS. He was very strategic in when he would fight and would sometimes look at other players’ tendencies on how they square off.
“I do have long arms for a smaller guy, so I tried to put guys at bay a little bit, protect my face and whatnot. A lot of the time it was really spur the moment,” Love said. “I always felt as a player that I wasn’t just gonna fight to fight. It was a momentum changing moment potentially or it was a chance for me to stick up for my teammate. There’s a certain skill and hockey IQ thing that comes along with that and that’s what I tried to take pride in when I was in that role.”
Once his playing career ended, the now 39-year-old wanted to be around the game, so he decided to be behind a bench. In 2011, Love became an assistant coach with the team that he had the closest connection with: The Everett Silvertips. He was the captain of the Silvertips during the 2004-05 season and had his jersey retired in February 2019.
As he further advanced up the coaching ranks, the former defenseman learned to tailor his coaching tactics to the modern game, while still having that blue collar mindset that he played with.
“The game has evolved itself, and as a coach you’ve got to evolve. You learn different things from players, how they tick, what makes them tick. Every player is different, what they need in terms of tutelage from a coach, the relationship component between players and coach. It’s really, really changed,” Love said. “I take a lot of pride in being a good team guy, whether it’s for the staff or for the players.”
For the last two seasons he was the head coach of the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate, the Calgary Wranglers, and had a bunch of success. After winning the AHL coach of the year for the second consecutive season last year, Love is going to live his lifelong dream of being in the NHL.
“I’m fulfilling my dream here in Washington to start my career as an NHL coach. My path was a little bit different, but I truly enjoy coaching and I love working with players. I love coming to the rink and sitting in that coach’s office and being around the game,” Love said. “It’s a huge honor and privilege to be part of the organization here in Washington and I’m looking forward to trying to chase down a Stanley Cup.”
By Jacob Cheris