|Subject: Chicago Blackhawks great Stan Mikita
Dies at 78
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Date Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 01:26:01pm
Stan Mikita, arguably the greatest player in Blackhawks history, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 78.
“There are no words to describe our sadness over Stan’s passing,” the team said in a statement. “He meant so much to the Chicago Blackhawks, to the game of hockey, and to all of Chicago.”
Mikita lived life the way he played the game of hockey.
He did it his way and he never stopped caring about what he did.
“He was more prepared than anybody I ever played with,” said Dale Tallon, executive vice-president and general manager of the Florida Panthers, remembering the years they spent together skating for the Blackhawks.
“His preparation was impeccable. His style of play was unique. He had great skills and drive and passion. He was hard-working. He was unselfish.
“He was a superstar.”
The little man who came from the little town of Sokolice in what then was Czechoslovakia and went on to become one of the biggest superstars of the National Hockey League and the Chicago sports galaxy died surrounded by his family.
In January, 2015 a statement released by Mikita’s family said he had been “diagnosed with Lewy body dementia,” a progressive disease with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
He is survived by his wife, Jill, a native of Berwyn whom he married on April 27, 1963, and their four children, Meg, Scott, Jane and Christopher.
Like Ernie Banks of the Cubs and Walter Payton of the Bears, Mikita spent his entire professional career in Chicago and is remembered as one of its sports icons.
“I’d just as soon be remembered as an athlete who was part of the community,” he once told former Tribune columnist Bob Verdi. “Chicago after all is my home.”
During his 22 years with the Blackhawks he played in 1,394 regular season games and became the franchise’s all-time leading regular season scorer with 1,467 points on 541 goals and 926 assists, also a team record. In the goal-scoring category he ranks No. 2 on the team’s all-time list, second only to his junior hockey and Hawk teammate Bobby Hull.
When he and Hull led the Blackhawks during their 1961 Stanley Cup championship season, Mikita scored six goals and assisted on 15 for 21 points in their 12 playoff games. Both the assists and points were the highest of any player in the playoffs.
In Hull’s opinion: “Pound for pound Stan had to be one of the greatest who ever played, and he was a player who always came to play.”
Mikita stood 5-feet-9 inches tall and his weight ranged from 160 to 165 pounds.
Known for his easy skating style, deceptive moves, and stickhandling guile, he had an uncanny ability to set up scoring chances for his teammates and he excelled at winning faceoffs.
Overshadowed by his attributes on offense was his defensive ability. One year when the NHL had a 70-game schedule his line was on the ice for only seven even-strength goals.
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, Mikita earned the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 1967 and 1968, the Art Ross trophy as the league’s leading scorer in 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1968 and the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play in 1967 and 1968. He was the first player to win all three trophies in one year and the only player to win all three in consecutive years.
“Unbelievable competitor,” said former teammate and Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito. “Even when he was close to 40-years-old he still was one of our best players. We didn’t have a very good team in those days. It was unbelievable how he could keep that intensity. He was tough as a player, really tough.”
That toughness manifested itself game in and game out because playing with injuries was the norm for Mikita during the Hall of Fame career that began when he appeared in three games as an 18-year-old in 1958-59. His back pain sometimes was excruciating and it finally forced him into retirement following the 1979-80 season in which he played only 17 games.
“I roomed with Stan on the road for 10 years and saw first-hand the aches and pains he had to deal with,” said former linemate Cliff Koroll. “With a little body like his and what he went through it’s amazing he lasted that long at the highest level.”
During the 1971 playoffs when the Blackhawks went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to Montreal, Mikita suffered a severely injured right middle finger when it was struck by a stick. He could barely hold a stick and it seemed he would be lost for the rest of the playoffs.
Amazingly, Mikita kept playing. He would reveal years later that--unknown to the team doctor--a private physician who was a friend injected the finger with Novocain before his next game and then sat next to the bench and froze the finger whenever the pain returned. He estimated that he had 20 injections.
Mikita dedication to contributing to the community was as steadfast as his commitment to his team
A lesson that made a lifelong impression on Koroll came after practice when he and Keith Magnuson were rookies and Mikita and Hull told them: “You guys are coming with us.”
The rookies thought they were going to have lunch and a few beers. Instead they went to a charity event at a nearby church where they signed autographs and had their pictures taken.
“This is part of your obligation as a hockey player,” Mikita and Hull told them. “This is one of your responsibilities as a pro athlete. You have to give back to the community.”
Mikita’s creativity in finding ways to give back was akin to his ability to produce points.
Lex Tiahnybik, the son of his friend, Irv Tiahnybik, was born partially deaf. Lex’s special needs as a young man inspired Mikita to start a hockey school for the deaf at the ice arena in Northbrook and enlist his teammates as fellow teachers. The school was held annually and evolved into the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.
“This has become an important part of my life,” Mikita once reflected. “We call it a hockey school but it’s really a whole lot more than that. The way I look at it these kids have been rejected so many times in their lives. You know how cruel kids can be. We like to think we can help them believe in themselves.”
Because of his life experiences, Mikita could identify with kids who felt scorned and rejected.
Born on May 20, 1940, Stanislav Gvoth came to Canada at age 8 to live with his mother’s oldest brother, Joe Mikita and wife Anna, in St. Catharines, Ontario, and he was given the name of the uncle who adopted him.
When he arrived in the English-speaking province of Ontario he didn’t know a word of English. The boy, who as a man would speak the language fluently and with no trace of an accent, felt out of place: “I was miserable for a while.” He fantasized about becoming a pilot so he could fly back to Czechoslovakia.
But Mikita found something that could fill the void in his life and win him acceptance, and that something was hockey. His introduction to the game came when he began playing on the street with a rubber ball serving as the puck on the pavement. When he was 9 he learned how to skate and began playing ice hockey.
By the time Mikita was a teenager two things had become clear: he was an intense competitor and he was a natural athlete. In addition to hockey, he played football, soccer and lacrosse.
“I think the first time I saw Stan Mikita he was across the rink from me in St. Catharines,” reminisced Hull. “I was playing for the St. Catharines Teepees’ Junior team and he was on the Midget team. He had on a leather jacket and he had that boogie haircut. I’d heard he was pretty good.
“I didn’t get to see much of him till the next year when he moved up to junior. We played on the same line and we were schoolmates. We played football together. We played soccer together. We double-dated together. I was at his house quite often. We were a close tandem.”
They were separated in 1957-58 when Hull went to the Blackhawks and Mikita remained with the Teepees and reunited in 1959-60 when Mikita played his first full season in the NHL.
Skating on different lines, they led the Hawks to their Stanley Cup conquest the following season and they remained the most dynamic duo in the NHL until 1972 when a $1 million signing bonus and a $250,000 yearly salary enticed Hull to jump to Winnipeg of the upstart World Hockey Association.
Mikita was offered $1.5 million over five years to play for the Chicago Cougars of the WHA—much more money than he was making in the NHL—but he accepted what he described as “a nice raise” and stayed with the Hawks.
Although Mikita’s fame came because of his hockey achievements he also was an exceptional golfer. He carded three eagles in shooting a 34-34-68 in qualifying for the State Amateur Tournament in 1972 and in 1979 he won both the medal and match play championships at Kemper Lakes in Long Grove (where he spent time working as a golf pro after his retirement from hockey).
For all of the intensity and commitment Mikita brought to his athletic endeavors and all that he accomplished, he always kept the games he played in perspective.
After the Hawks were swept from the playoffs one year a reporter asked Mikita how it felt to be “killed” in four straight games.
“Not very good but then again while we were playing games here tonight I wonder how many guys really were killed in Vietnam,” Mikita answered.
After his retirement from the game, Mikita attended Blackhawks games regularly, slipping in and out of the Stadium and then the United Center, exchanging pleasantries with fans, trying to enjoy a little hockey.
“But it wasn't a happy feeling,” Mikita said. “There was always something pulling you back.”
It had nothing to do with the hockey but rather a culture that had turned away not only much of the team's fan base but also some of its biggest stars, including Mikita, whose retired No. 21 hangs in the United Center rafters.
In 2008, Mikita and Hull were officially brought back into the family (and onto the payroll) as “official club ambassadors.”
What did that mean to Mikita?
“It means after all the sweat and blood and operations we've put in for the Indian head, you're welcomed back in the fold, no longer ostracized the way we have been for the last 28 years,” Mikita said. “We weren't really wanted there, according to some people.”
Mikita was one of many who were impressed by the Hawks’ turnaround, which began when Rocky Wirtz took over the chairmanship from his late father, Bill, in 2008 and continued when Rocky lured John McDonough away from the Cubs to be team president.
“To be successful, there has to be some harmony, there has to be happiness among everybody, and that includes the ticket office, the PR department, the guys selling beer,” Mikita said.
Unlike his predecessors, McDonough understood how important it was to have your franchise's biggest names feel welcome.
“At a certain time, you have to lay down your swords and say no more grievances – we have to get away from the feuding,” McDonough said in ‘08. “It was imperative that we got that done.
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