Rocky Wirtz came with prepared remarks, but he spoke from the heart, not from a sheet of paper, when he told a rapt audience what Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita mean to the Blackhawks.
They are not only part of our history, mentioned the chairman. They are part of our future.
Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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This much was assured on a crisp autumn Saturday evening when statues of the Hall of Famers were unveiled during a poignant ceremony on the northeast corner of the United Center. Hull and Mikita—correctly identified by President and CEO John McDonough as the greatest players in franchise history—brought families and friends to the testimonial that was seriously tardy. But McDonough suggested the delayed celebration might be worth the wait, and again he nailed it because the sculptures are spectacular likenesses. Julie Rotblatt Amrany and Omri Amrany of the Rotblatt/Amrany Fine Art Studio have created several, among them Michael Jordan and Harry Caray.
The Hull and Mikita renditions are worthy of the giants they commemorate. Action, detail, even splashes of red to highlight those famous jerseys.
“Never, ever thought in 100 years….” Hull gushed, not needing to finish his sentence as he looked out toward admirers who gathered to watch video tributes, before the guests to be bronzed appeared. The two icons were not scheduled to show until shortly after 7, but fans milled around the stage hours earlier, another standing room only situation for Hall of Famers accustomed to the roar of the crowd. While the current Blackhawks were warming up inside for their tilt against the Colorado Avalanche, Nos. 9 and 21 were properly saluted for years of brilliance across the street in the old Stadium and around the entire National Hockey League. True, Bobby and Stan were ours, but they were box office everywhere.
“Humbled, I’m really humbled,” mused Mikita, later on in a suite with wife Jill, their children and their children’s children. Daughter Meg was in from Boston, son Scott flew in from New York. “I said it before and I’ll say it again. I thought by now I would be forgotten, and instead, I keep being remembered. The relationship Bobby and I have with Rocky and John and the new Blackhawks has been special. And the statues are terrific. Takes real artists to capture my good looks, you know.”
Despite the legendary status of Saturday’s honorees, the ceremony punctuated a chapter in Blackhawks history that came out of nowhere, which is where Hull and Mikita found themselves before the new regime took hold. Hull and Mikita were on the outside of the United Center, but not in bronze. When Wirtz and McDonough assumed control of the Blackhawks in 2007, they easily could have asked for patience while embarking on that old sporting favorite, the five-year plan. Instead, they opted for what felt more like a five-minute drill.
Wirtz and McDonough had a sagging franchise to fix. McDonough, in fact, volunteered that he imagined being given the keys to an expansion team, but it was really worse than that because expansion teams don’t have scars. Expansion teams have honeymoons to anticipate, not nightmares to erase, and captive audiences with which to deal, not disenchanted thousands. The enlightened leadership again could have been excused for tending to current events, but no, the mission statement also included repairing the past.
“We are out of the grudge business,” intoned McDonough, as if he didn’t have enough on his plate. Soon, very soon, he extended an overdue welcome back to the Blackhawks family to Hull and Mikita.
Symbolically, the statues are “side by each,” as Mikita noted. Most monuments of sports idols stand alone, but it is fitting and proper that Bobby and Stan are now “linemates” beside the United Center because they are inexorably linked. They came together in St. Catharines, Ontario, by pure chance in the 1950s—Hull a Canadian kid who left home a couple hours away to hone his estimable skills, and Mikita, who at age 8 departed his native Czechoslovakia to be adopted by his uncle and aunt. Hull and Mikita played together on the same junior team, double dated as teens, went to Chicago without spending a day in the minor leagues, contributed mightily toward restoring the Blackhawks to center stage with a Stanley Cup in 1961, filled the Stadium during the golden years, were inducted into Hockey’s Hall of Fame together, and became Blackhawk Ambassadors together.
Then again, Hull and Mikita did not require highfalutin titles to reach out and connect with fans. Pat Foley, the outstanding voice of the Blackhawks and emcee for Saturday’s program, put it quite succinctly when he declared about Nos. 9 and 21, “They were ambassadors before they were ambassadors.” That, in part, underscores why all generations were represented in the gathering of several hundred fans, along with dignitaries, including former Blackhawks Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick. This is a recurrent theme surrounding Hull and Mikita, superstars who are now super seniors. You didn’t have to play with them, or pay to watch them play, to respect their style and their substance.
“What were the odds, 50 years ago, that Stanley and I would be here tonight, alongside these statues?” wondered Hull, a twinkle in his eye. “Never mind 50. What were the odds five years ago that there would be a night like tonight?”
An obvious bonus is that Hull and Mikita are still with us. Numerous statues are bestowed on icons after they are deceased, leaving relatives to resurrect memories and handle the thank yous. But Bobby and Stan are still quite vibrant, full of hiss and vinegar. Hull, without prompting, says what the new Blackhawks did “changed my life.” And he said that long before Saturday evening’s gesture, when a born-again franchise went the extra mile to block traffic on West Madison Street, where one of the finest one-two punches in sports annals will be remembered forever, immortals immortalized by monuments to excellence.