You would hardly know Adam Mitchell “made a difference” with the four-time Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings from 1997-2008.
By day, the unassuming, mild-mannered Mitchell was a teacher and counselor in the Livonia public school system for more than 50 years.
By night though starting in 1984, he would head down to Joe Louis Arena and keep statistics for nine different head coaches of the Red Wings, including Scotty Bowman during three Cup seasons in 1997, 1998 and 2002 and Mike Babcock during the franchise’s 11th and last NHL championship in 2008.
Both Bowman and Babcock credit Mitchell for contributing to the success of their coaching staffs, for being a cherished friend to them and their families and for being at the forefront of the hockey analytics revolution.
Mitchell, 74, died in a car accident on March 8, 2020 after suffering a heart attack while driving home from a Sunday night hockey game between the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning at Little Caesars Arena.
“You’re never going to see a person as caring as Adam was,” said Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history with 1,244 regular-season wins and the most Stanley Cups (9) as coach in Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit. “He was a wonderful man who was dedicated to his family and dedicated to the Red Wings. I can only imagine how many fires he put out as a guidance counselor. He’s gone far too early.”
“The reality is Adam Mitchell was an important part of our coaching staff,” said Babcock, who ranks No. 1 in the Red Wings’ 95-year history with 458 wins during a 10-year stretch from 2005-2015. “He was a big-hearted guy who always had a smile on his face and brought energy into a coach’s room. He left a legacy of being involved with young people as an educator and loving the game. He definitely made an impact on us.”
When Bowman arrived in Detroit in 1993, he had Mitchell chart three key stats delivered at the end of each period: ice time (“Sergei Fedorov could’ve played 25 minutes a game”), turnovers at either blueline (“careless plays”) and tracking forechecking players with the left-wing lock system (“his accuracy was impeccable.”)
“The other stat we started was kind of like analytics today,” Bowman said. “What happens to the puck when our defensemen pass the puck under pressure or with lots of time? Did we keep the puck or give it away? Nick Lidstrom’s chart was unbelievable. He was always in the 90 percent range. Nine times out of 10 we kept the puck.”
Babcock asked Mitchell to compile work-ethic indicators like: Who was the first guy back in the defensive zone? Who had pressures from behind in the neutral zone? Who was putting pressure on the defenseman in the offensive zone?
“When he thought we weren’t catching on, he would circle stuff,” Babcock said. “Like, ‘Hey you dummies down here. Get it together. Get this team playing harder.’ Don’t be confused though with all the things he could calculate. What I appreciated was he shared his time and his love of the game. That’s the bottom line.”
Bowman and Mitchell became good friends (“Like two peas in a pod,” said Mitchell’s wife Rosemary) with Mitchell always asking about Bowman’s son David, who suffered brain damage as an infant shortly after he was born in June of 1972.
“That would be his first question: ‘How’s David?'” Bowman said. “He would light candles for my handicapped son every time he had to have surgery. We were so appreciative. My wife (Suella) called Rosemary a couple of days ago. Rosemary explained once again how she and Adam went back to when she was 17 years of age.”
The Mitchells were married for 52 years with three children (Kimberly, David, Paul) and three grandchildren (Anthony, Emily, Justin). On the night of his death, Rosemary said she knew something was wrong when he didn’t return her calls after the game.
“We had this ritual when he was down there for 36 years,” she said. “I would call him and ask, ‘Where are you now?’ He would say, “Oh, I’m coming up to Southfield.’ I would call again later and he would often say, ‘I’m in the driveway.'”
She said she was grateful no one else was injured when her husband’s car crashed into a light post near a bus-stop area but said “our nightmare began” when a Livonia police officer rang the doorbell at their house to break the news of the fatal accident.
“He was the love of my life,” she said. “One of the highlights of his life was his friendship with Scotty. When we were out with friends and Adam’s phone was ringing, they would be in awe and would say, “Scotty Bowman is calling you now?’ Adam would leave the table and always took the call. They reminded me of two old ladies on the phone.”
David Mitchell, a computer teacher who worked with his dad for 10 years at Holmes Middle School in Livonia, remembers building the spreadsheets to highlight the Red Wings statistics, which went from his home in Livonia to Bowman’s office at JLA.
“My friends would ask me, ‘What are you doing?’ and I would say, ‘Oh nothing, just doing stats for the Red Wings,” Mitchell said. “My dad would always come to me and say, ‘OK David, I need these stats done.’ I would set up a spreadsheet and try to teach him but he would say, ‘Just set it up for me and I will put the numbers in.'”
David Mitchell has also been the high school hockey coach for 13 years with the Livonia Stevenson Spartans, who won a state championship in 2013 and were one of the state’s top 10 teams in the regular season with a 9-3 record. In the playoffs, Livonia Stevenson lost to Novi 2-1 in overtime in the regional final.
“My dad’s famous line after coaching our fall and spring teams was, ‘I’ll give you this team now. Just don’t mess it up,” Mitchell said. “The void that he has left has been huge. Everything is just quieter now and not in a good way. We miss his passion, his laughter in the coach’s room, within the program and my life. He would’ve been the guy to help guide me through this pandemic. It’s been a challenge doing it on my own.”
Babcock, who will coach the University of Saskatchewan Huskies on a voluntary basis for the next two years, said nobody should be surprised that a middle school counselor like Mitchell taught Stanley Cup-winning coaches as much about generosity, family and loyalty as they taught him about life behind the scenes in the NHL.
“The only thing I would say to you is this,” Babcock said. “Scotty Bowman is ordinary. Mike Babcock is ordinary. I’m (from) Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The reality is Adam Mitchell was a great man who shared his heart and his passion with the Red Wings, with Stevenson high school, with his family, with my family, a true friend.”