Whenever he starts talking about almonds, his teammates pounce.
“Hey, look! It’s Farmer Mitch!” they say. “Here we go again …”
Mitch Mueller laughs. He gets it. There aren’t any other hockey players in that Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs dressing room who grew up on a Southern California almond farm.
That Bakersfield acreage is where Mueller sought refuge last March, when Roanoke cut him with a few weeks left in its inaugural season. He tended to his father’s almond trees in the mornings, then worked in a restaurant at night. He cleared his head of all things hockey — something he now realizes was vital for his development.
Nine months later, the 23-year-old is back with the team and loving it. He has a new position, a fresh attitude and the trust and respect of the coach who let him go.
“It’s awesome,” Mueller said of his current situation. “I remember last year — and it happens to everybody — you’d wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Crap, I’ve got to go to practice.’ And now it’s kind of like, ‘I can’t wait to get out there to be with the guys.’”
Mueller’s transformation began when he was cut. A defenseman who’d been added to Roanoke’s roster in midseason, Mueller was a casualty of a team that was struggling and needed a personnel shakeup to try to spark a turnaround.
Roanoke coach Sam Ftorek told Mueller to hold onto his contact information, because the team might reach out to him again. But for several weeks, as he worked “real jobs” back home, Mueller didn’t really consider his hockey future — or even know if he had one.
“Just getting away, I think that was so good for my mind,” Mueller said. “Because last year was such a tough year. I was on three different SPHL teams and I played in the Federal League for a month. I just had to get away, and once I came back, it was a whole new…