It’s going to be hard not to root for Sasha Mutala at the draft this summer. As it is, he’s a hometown Vancouver boy, so getting to pull on an NHL jersey in that city would be pretty sweet. But it would also be a just reward for a teenager who has gone through a lot of adversity lately.
Mutala, a right winger for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, is an only child who has seen both of his parents stricken will serious medical issues in less than two years.
In December of 2017, Mutala’s mother, Ji Young Kim, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery the following February, then chemotherapy in the summer. Mutala left for training camp in Washington that fall while she was undergoing radiation therapy. Soon after, in September of 2018, his father Don suffered a severe stroke that affected the right side of his brain. That brought Sasha back to British Columbia for a couple of weeks to see how his dad was doing.
We often talk about the pressure on kids in their draft year, but it’s also important to remember that hockey is a family game, and we can never lose sight of the family part of the equation. Mutala managed to stay in contact with his parents as much as possible this season, despite playing six hours away in a different country. The fact Tri-City played in Vancouver in early December helped out, as he got another visit in with his parents, while the Christmas break came soon after. But playing for the Americans also allowed the young power forward to have some time away from the understandable anxieties in his personal life. “The rink was a place to clear my head,” Mutala said. “And all the guys on the team were great for me.”
Still, it was a difficult season. It began pretty well, as Mutala put up four points in five games for Canada at the Hlinka-Gretzky under-18 tournament in August, winning a gold medal in the process. But the news surrounding his parents had an effect soon thereafter. “It was up and down,” he said of his season. “Some of the stuff I went through affected me on the ice, but down the stretch I heated up.”
Even better news: the prognosis for both his parents is now positive.
While it may seem like playing in another country would be a hindrance when family matters arise, it’s probably a bit different in the WHL, where a kid from Manitoba could end up nearly halfway across the continent in British Columbia – not exactly an easy jaunt, even if it’s within Canadian borders. For Mutala, Kennewick (where Tri-City plays) has been a great spot. “It was definitely a different experience, but I really like it down there,” he said. “I’ve always loved to travel.”
That includes a couple trips to his mom’s native land of South Korea.
A big fan of the Washington Capitals’ T.J. Oshie, Mutala looks like a mid-round pick for the 2019 NHL draft. While his overall numbers with Tri-City were decent (41 points in 65 games, sixth on the team), there’s a lot more to his game than simply numbers. “Teams with a strong WHL presence will know all about him,” said one NHL executive. “Character kid, comes to play. He lets defensemen know he’s there, he’s tough to play against.”
At 6-foot-1 and nearly 200 pounds, Mutala has a sneaky offensive upside and the ability to complement skill players. So what happens at draft weekend? Once you get into those middle rounds, just about anything can transpire. Teams begin to draft for specific needs rather than just “Best Player Available,” which, by then, is a pretty amorphous concept for any team to wrap its head around.
Mutala has yet to finalize his draft plans yet, and that’s probably for the best. If there’s one thing Don Cherry is still right about, it’s the notion that only the kids guaranteed to get selected should go to the draft. For Mutala, he’s already going to be in the city, so he could always pull off a Tony Cameranesi if he chooses not to attend. (In one of my favorite draft-day stories, the Minnesota native decided to go for a run instead of attending the 2011 draft in St. Paul. When the Toronto Maple Leafs picked him in the fifth round, Cameranesi ended up wheeling over to the Xcel Energy Center to put his jersey on.)
It would be great if Mutala gets a chance to put on an NHL jersey this summer. He has clearly persevered through a lot already and getting that call would be a well-deserved reward, even if he doesn’t attend the draft in person. As long as he gets to share the moment with his parents, I would hazard to guess that it doesn’t matter where the celebration takes place.