Willie Mitchell
Credit: Jeremy Koreski

Willie Mitchell, the conservation-minded former Vancouver Canuck, reinvents himself as co-owner of a Tofino resort

Willie Mitchell jovially recounts sitting in Hot Springs Cove near Tofino on a Valentine’s Day shortly before asking his future wife, Megan, to marry him. Having flown up early to beat the crowds to the popular spot on the west of Vancouver Island, suddenly being joined by an older couple wasn’t part of the plan, explains the ex–Vancouver Canucks defenceman, now co-owner and president of the newly launched Tofino Resort and Marina. “We’re like, ‘Uh-oh, naked man and woman coming down,’” Mitchell says with a laugh. “They sit down, and he starts rolling this big fatty—it was so Tofino.”

Combined with his long-time love of adventure fishing and numerous vacations around so-called Tough City, that experience is part of the offbeat charm that hooked Mitchell (who grew up on the Island, in Port McNeill) into his new business venture after retiring as captain of the Florida Panthers in 2016. Besides, the upbeat 40-year-old—who twice won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings but had been on and off the ice with concussions—sees the $9-million investment in the five-acre former Marina West property offering him a shot at reinvention. “I could have gone back and made some more money,” he says of the National Hockey League. “But the opportunity cost of this could mean me being an unhealthy person—and health is your wealth.”

Joining partners Dan Hamhuis (a fellow former Canuck who’s now with the Dallas Stars) and Andrew Purdey, the Mill Bay–based founder of Ruskin Construction Ltd., Mitchell called on 17 years of “chasing around rubber for a living” for the entrepreneurial role. “What made me a really good hockey player was situational awareness,” he says. “I could see all 12 guys on the ice at one time, so I could read and react very well and ahead of time. That works well here.”

Besides overhauling the 62 rooms and the renamed the Hatch Waterfront Pub at what he calls the “refined yet rugged” resort, the trio have installed a more upscale dining area, 1909Kitchen (including bringing in chef Paul Moran, a protege of Mitchell’s restaurateur friend David Hawksworth). They’ve also created a new 56-slip marina—some berths, notably, have 130-foot moorage—and opened an adventure centre for activities such as whale and bear watching.

“I wasn’t great at school, but I hate the stereo­type of a hockey professional just being an athlete, and I’d like to think there’s some more depth to me,” Mitchell says over capicola and aged gouda pizza at 1909.

Something else that works well on this wild coast: Mitchell’s conservation credentials. While he excitedly swipes his phone to show photos of his latest catch—an albacore tuna some 60 clicks off Tofino’s shoreline—he insists that fishing is more than just a sport. For him, it’s about respect for nature he learned from his family and growing up with the Namgis First Nation. “They helped me to connect on a whole new spiritual level—I’ve been very blessed,” the father of eight-month-old son Pax (currently with Megan at their home in Fort Lauderdale while they build in Tofino; they also have a place in Kitsilano). “Tofino and these places fill your soul. It’s where I’ve always come to be healed.”

That healing is why he’s now keen to share the area through hospitality, he adds—and keep advocating for it.

“Even if you are in the corporate world and that’s what drives your bus, if you really looked at it objectively, I think keeping British Columbia beautiful is such a competitive advantage in all aspects,” he concludes, before heading off to help create ocean action shots with SeaLegacy, the Qualicum Beach–based consortium of renowned international nature photographers. “Salmon feed it all—the whales, the eagles, the bears. B.C. is not here without them, so I feel it’s my responsibility to protect it.”

THREE THINGS ABOUT… WILLIE MITCHELL

1. Mitchell has been afraid of heights since an engine stopped on a plane when he was 15. “Everything was fine, but it wasn’t the most pleasurable experience,” he says, adding that he’s worked hard to overcome the fear, including now learning to fly a fixed-wing aircraft.
 
2. As much as he loves heading to the Bahamas from his home in Florida for lunch in the 32-degree heat, he still yearns to spend a whole winter “in the middle of the bush chasing nothing but steelhead” in B.C.Steelhead
 
3. He enjoyed a spell of not having to work out daily after quitting hockey, but since starting his resort, Mitchell finds himself wanting to run on a beach first thing. “Otherwise as soon as I touch my computer, I’m into the vortex, so I’ve needed to learn to compartmentalize: pay Willie first, pay the family, pay the business…”