Then April 6 happened and those plans changed … sort of.
Hunter was one of the 16 victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that devastated the Saskatchewan community in particular, and the Canadian hockey community as a whole.
But while Hunter isn’t one of the 17,000-plus that have jammed Rogers Arena for Canada’s first three preliminary-round games at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, that doesn’t mean he’s not there.
“Logan always said that if I made it here he was coming, so he’ll be here in spirit,” Mitchell says. “I have a little thing in my stall and on my stick, so he’s still with us and he’s still with me.”
Mitchell and Hunter were pretty much inseparable from the time they met as Grade 6 students in St. Albert, Alta. They were never minor hockey teammates, but it was the game that helped forge a bond that transcended borders after Mitchell departed for the University of Denver in the fall of 2017.
While the defenceman found his footing in the game early, wearing the Maple Leaf at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, World Junior A Challenge and IIHF U18 World Championship, Hunter always seemed to be one step away – he had the skill, but there was something missing to take him to the next level.
That something, it turns out, was Mitchell.
In the summer months before Mitchell left for Denver, right after he was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft, the friends worked out together daily. Shauna Nordstrom, Hunter’s mother, credits that program – and Mitchell – with putting Logan over the top.
“My son had a great shot, he could pass the puck, but he was always a little shy about the physical part of the game,” Nordstrom says. “It always kind of held him back a little bit, so the two of them fed off each other and gave confidence to each other.
“Ian always had that maturity, and Logan was a little more on the youthful side of things. It was that summer, I felt, that Logan really started to mature. And when he went to Humboldt, and living away from home, we would go there often and I could see this development of maturity.”
Mitchell gives much of the credit for his maturity to his hometown, Calahoo, Alta., the entire population of which (85, according to the 2016 Census) would need only a few rows at Rogers Arena in order to support its favourite son.
For those who may have blinked and missed it along Highway 37, Mitchell gives a pretty succinct description of the hamlet.
“It’s a hockey rink, a couple baseball diamonds and a trailer park, and a general store,” he says with a smile. “Gravel road, one stop sign, I think, no lights. Train tracks, so you have to stop for that, too.”
It may not be much, but it’s home, and Mitchell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can’t really mess around because everyone knows who you are, and mom is waiting at the door,” he says. “It was great in that sense – small, tight-knit community, and everyone helps out at hockey tournaments or different things around town. I’m still in contact with a lot of people I grew up with, and it’s just special to grow up in that rural community and be able to have that close-knit feeling you don’t get in a big city.”
Growing up in Calahoo has not only shaped Mitchell into the young man he has become, it has done much the same with his identity on the ice, something he credits wholly to his rural upbringing.
Mitchell played locally with the CR Knights Minor Hockey Association through his second year of Peewee, playing games against the likes of Ponoka, Maskwacis, Onoway, Edson and Jasper and building a love for the game that came from never really leaving the ice.
“I just had the confidence to try a lot of things, rush the puck up the ice and try and make one-on-one plays, so that helped the offensive side of my game,” he says. “Sometimes you only had 12 guys on the team, so you’re getting a lot of ice time. I think that was huge for my development, getting to play lots and having fun playing.”
He made the jump to the ‘big city’ in 2011-12, joining the Peewee and Bantam programs in Spruce Grove, and played one season of Midget in St. Albert before suiting up for the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League for two years.
From there it was off to Denver, where Mitchell earned a spot on the NCHC All-Rookie Team as a nod as a finalist for NCHC Rookie of the Year last season after posting 30 points in 41 games.
Now the journey has brought him to Vancouver and the pinnacle of junior hockey, the IIHF World Junior Championship. The experience so far has been one big pinch-me moment for Mitchell and his family.
“[Making Team Canada] was always the dream, but you never really think it’s going to become reality until you actually make it here,” he says. “My mom always says I’m just a little kid from Calahoo, and she’s having the hardest time believing I’m able to fulfill my dream and make the World Juniors team.”
Mitchell’s parents, Bill and Sara, are in Vancouver to enjoy the experience along with a handful of other family and friends, which includes one particularly special guest – Nordstrom arrived Saturday, in time for the game against the Czech Republic that night.
“I consider Ian like my son. And sharing this amazing moment with him and his family, it just felt that we were supposed to be enjoying it live, not at home on TV,” she says. “We just needed to be together as family, and it’s part of the healing for all of us.
“I obviously wish my son was sitting beside me, but he’s with Ian every shift. I feel it, and I know he’s here and he’s happy that we made the journey out here.”
Mitchell describes April 6 as “the hardest day of my life.” From the original phone call from friend Dylan Ganske, to early-morning confirmation that Hunter hadn’t survived the crash, to wandering the Denver campus in a daze, it was a whirlwind of events and emotions.
He returned home to Alberta for the funeral services, speaking at Hunter’s personal service as well as the celebration of life for Hunter, Jaxon Joseph, Stephen Wack and Parker Tobin (a former minor hockey teammate) at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
“It was good to go home,” he says. “It brought our group of friends closer together, and really showed how close the hockey community is, but it’s unfortunate that [the accident] is what caused it.”
Life, and the game, go on, and with his best friend in the forefront of his mind, Mitchell has his sights set on World Juniors gold – for himself, for his country, for his family, and for Logan Hunter.
“It’s tough, but you just have to move on and remember them for the great people they were,” he says of those who were lost last spring. “I’m always thinking of those guys.”