Chicago's major professional sports teams have been in business for more than 400 combined seasons.* In that time, an elite group of players have transcended superstar status and become icons -- the select athletes who are remembered and revered decades after their playing days are over and subsequently become the one single player most closely identified with the history and identity of a franchise.
Icons serve as the bridge between generations of fans.
For two of the city's teams, the icons are obvious and indisputable: the statue outside the east entrance to the United Center makes a pretty convincing case for Michael Jordan as Bulls icon, while Ernie Banks has carried the quasi-official nickname of "Mr. Cub" for at least 30 years, which concludes that discussion.
|Stan Mikita poses with former Hawk Chris Chelios before the 1997 NHL All-Star game in San Jose. (Getty Images)|
The best choice for icon of two of the other teams is much less obvious, although for oddly different reasons -- the Bears have too many candidates while the White Sox have too few. Make the case for one of the players from a list that includes Grange, Luckman, Sayers, Butkus, or Payton, and watch the fistfights begin as supporters of any of the other players attempt to beat some sense into you.
We can certainly debate which Bear is the team's icon, but at least there are ample candidates. The White Sox, on the other hand, have simply never had an enduring superstar whose legacy transcends the decades. The Sox have had tremendous players on their roster (the team has retired eight jersey numbers), but none of them captured the imagination as the other icons did. Luis Aparacio, Luke Appling, Minnie Minoso... great players all, but their names hardly resonate beyond the neighborhoods of the south side.
As for the Blackhawks, there are five candidates. Their names can be seen hanging from the UC rafters along with their retired jersey numbers. Of those five, two merit serious consideration for the status of franchise icon, and with a bit of analysis one of those two emerges as the clear choice: Stan Mikita.
Most of the grainy film highlights from the 1960s and 1970s feature a fleet-footed, helmet-less Bobby Hull streaking up Chicago Stadium ice. No Hawk before or since has brought spectators to their feet as frequently as Hull did. Radio listeners often heard Lloyd Petit's description of a signature rush punctuated by a loud 'boom' if one of Hull's hundred-mile-an-hour heaters sailed wide or high.
No one made near-misses as exciting as Bobby Hull. Not that he missed often; Hull remains the Blackhawks' leading goal scorer as well as the primary source of team highlights and memories. Powerful, fast, and charismatic? Yes. Team icon? No.
Stan Mikita was a Blackhawk and nothing but a Blackhawk. Every single one of his National Hockey League games was played wearing the Hawk sweater. Mikita joined the NHL when it was a six-team, 120 player league. Mathematically, it was more difficult to make it to the NHL than it was to get elected to Congress. Congress may have paid better, but the NHL was more fun.
Unlike many of his peers, Mikita did not 'go west' following the 1967 expansion to extend his career by joining the California Golden Seals or the Los Angeles Kings. Nor did he chase the chimera of riches promised (but never delivered) by the World Hockey Association.
His major statistical accomplishments have endured in spite of longer regular seasons and expanded playoff rounds in subsequent years. He remains the franchise leader in total games played (1,549) and seasons played (22). To quote Steve Martin, most contemporary players are "ramblin' guys," so Mikita will probably own those two records as long as the Blackhawks team exists.
Mikita holds scoring marks as well as longevity records. While Hull is the franchise leader for goals in a career, Mikita is second on that list and he is first in assists as well as total points.
Mikita and Hull both have their names etched on the Stanley Cup as members of the 1960-61 championship team. However, in the mid-1960s Mikita's fireplace mantle had to be enlarged to accommodate all of the trophies he was winning. He pulled off the amazing trifecta of winning the league's scoring title (Art Ross Trophy), most outstanding player laurels (Hart Trophy) and sportsmanship award (Lady Byng Trophy) in two consecutive seasons.
A player scoring as much as Mikita did could well afford to be a good sport about it. No other player in league history has won all three awards in the same season, including Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe (not that he was EVER a candidate for the Lady Byng award; Howe has earned the "Mr. Hockey" honorific, but it certainly wasn't because of his sportsmanlike play!)
Should the league office someday decree that each team's logo must be replaced with an embroidered version of the one player who best represents that team's history, accomplishments, and identity, the Blackhawks' four-feathered friend will be replaced by Stan Mikita.
The defense rests, which is more than Mikita's opponents could afford to do.
* Cubs 130 years, Sox 107 years, Bears 85 years, Blackhawks 81 years, and Bulls 41 years
Van Oler is a freelance writer and Blackhawks fan living in Cincinnati.