In the newest edition of the "85 Years" series, Team Historian and co-author of "Forever a Blackhawk" on the book's subject, Hall of Famer and Blackhawks Ambassador Stan Mikita.
Stan Mikita and I have been running into each other for more than 40 years, but I can recall only one occasion when he raised his voice in my presence. The genesis of Stan’s frustration had nothing to do with hockey or something inane that appeared in the Chicago Tribune under my byline. Shortly after he completed his Hall of Fame career, you see, Stan became a golf professional, and in a humanitarian gesture, he volunteered to teach me the art of chipping the ball close to the hole.
Ten minutes or so into our lesson, Mikita determined that my physical skills were barely tolerable, but my mental limitations limitless.
"85 YEARS" SERIES
On November 17, 1926, the Chicago Black Hawks took the ice for the first time. 85 years later, the Blackhawks hold an important place in NHL history and Chicago sports.
In celebration of the Blackhawks’ 85th anniversary, Blackhawks Magazine and chicagoblackhawks.com will profile some of the greatest players to ever don the sweater, with essays written by the people who knew them best: teammates, rivals, broadcasters and other members of the NHL community.
Check chicagoblackhawks.com every Wednesday for another entry in the "85 Years" series.
Recent "85 Years" essays:
> Pierre Pilote on Bobby Hull
> Denis Savard on Patrick Kane
> Pat Foley on Eddie Olczyk
“If you would just leave your head at home when you come to the course,” he exclaimed, “I could help you!”
Mikita’s critique was candid, delivered with a straight face and more than a dash of dry humor—characteristics that always have defined and endeared him to friends, acquaintances and teammates. I can honestly state I have scoured the landscape in search of someone, anyone, with a bad word to say about Stan Mikita, and I have failed. It is one measure of a man to become a superstar athlete who, as Bobby Hull aptly described, was “pound for pound, the best hockey player ever to lace up the skates.” But to realize that type of fame and fortune without becoming infatuated by oneself is another dimension rarely aspired to or achieved by individuals accustomed to the roar of the crowd. Mikita didn’t “big league” rookies in the locker room, or strangers on the street.
Stan’s status as a regular guy has not veered from quo, despite an irregular upbringing--and perhaps, in part, because of it. Back in the day, if you were a kid with raw talent, you left home as a teen, and not to go to college. You pulled up your roots, went somewhere else in Canada, and grew up fast. Mikita’s saga involved more than changing provinces. At age 8, he departed Czechoslovakia with his aunt and uncle for St. Catharines, Ont., and a “better life”—or so his parents hoped. Stan spoke no English, he was tiny and confused, and nowhere on his itinerary did it guarantee that such a jarring relocation would render him a National Hockey League legend. Talk about an unconventional childhood.
Yet somewhere along the convoluted path, certainly not from a textbook or in a classroom, Mikita learned and absorbed basics and values. His metrics on the ice were goals and assists, but a game is only 60 minutes. There was a whole new world to join, and Stan was up for it. Uncle Joe preached the importance of a work ethic, and Stan practiced it. As he gained a sense of belonging through his hockey acumen, Stan also separated himself from peers because he was truly special with that puck on his stick. Still, Stan retained thoughts of the old country, where, if you got a piece of gum, it felt like Christmas.
In Chicago, Mikita was a quick hit. He never played a minute in the minor leagues, and wound up never playing a minute for any franchise besides the Blackhawks. But above and beyond all that, Mikita evolved into Chicago’s very own treasure, the least pretentious, most accommodating icon imaginable. He married a Chicago girl, Jill, raised four children here, always lived here, and still lives here. With a lot of athletes, it’s as though they’re most fervent wish is to die in their own arms. Not Stan Mikita, who cuts his own grass and was saying hello to fans at gate 3 ½ in the old Stadium even before it was time to say goodbye in 1980, after 22 seasons of excellence. He was a magician on the ice, but in civilian life, there is no abracadabra about him. He’s real.
Mikita almost never calls attention to himself. We use “almost” advisedly, because he is impossible to miss when fashioning one of those garish sports jackets that either are being worn inside out or were seat covers from an old Studebaker. More than likely, though, Mikita succumbs to that I-dressed-in-the-dark look while at one of his various charitable endeavors, attempting to raise funds. During the prime of his career, when he could have been poolside for the summer, Mikita helped put the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association on the map. He’s big on Special Olympics, too, and was among the founders of the Blackhawk Alumni Association, one of the most successful organizations of its kind in professional sports. Suffice it to say, when Mikita could be admiring his trophy case, he chooses to partake of community causes.
It was at the school for deaf youngsters that Meg, the Mikitas’ oldest daughter, tapped an urge to help others. For 25 years she’s been teaching children with physical and developmental challenges. Son Scott is an actor in New York with “The Phantom of the Opera.” Jane and Chris run the family business, and not by brandishing the family name. They work at it because that is the mantra of the household. Stan credits Jill for the prevailing attitude and, again, one suspects he is being brutally honest. Hockey wives who raise kids properly while dad is on a road trip are stars in their own right, and Jill qualifies on all counts.
Stan admits he felt “unwelcome in the building” for a protracted period, but he never pounded his fist. It is not his nature to feel that he is owed something. However, when President & CEO John McDonough placed a call offering to bring him back to the Blackhawks as an ambassador, Mikita was utterly surprised and sincerely grateful. The franchise, under new leadership engineered by chairman Rocky Wirtz, declared honoring its past as an overdue mission and Mikita says, “By now, I thought for sure that I would be forgotten. Instead, I am still being remembered. How lucky can a guy be?”
Mikita, along with fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, is still being remembered with a statue outside the United Center. Stand by it and you will recognize that you are in the shadow of a superstar. But you will feel comfortable, as you would in the presence of the Stan the man, a regular guy.