Wayne Gretzky graced the United Center Monday night, an executive now with a franchise he made famous, the Edmonton Oilers. Smooth as ever, the Great One reminisced about his National Hockey League arrival.
"Right across the street at the Stadium, October of 1979, opener for both teams," he mused. "I'm a nervous kid, and my first faceoff is against Stan Mikita. Legend. And my father Walter's favorite player."
Gretzky would embark on a spectacular career, and Mikita was about to punctuate a Hall of Fame resume of his own. Age and injuries restricted him to just 17 games that season, his last of 22 as soul of the Blackhawks. It was time to move on, and as Mikita often remarked before he passed away in 2018, he assumed he'd be forgotten, only to be humbled by being so warmly remembered.
Indeed, there is a banner atop the United Center bearing his No. 21, unveiled at the original Madhouse on Madison on October 19, 1980. It was the first jersey retired by the Blackhawks, and Mikita took the news from team President Bill Wirtz in stunned silence.
"He cried," recalled Mikita's widow, Jill. "We were at a game, just watching after he was done playing, and Bill called him into his office. We talked about it on the way home. 'Why is this happening? I was hired to do a job andI did it.' It was something he never expected, something beyond belief. He said, 'I never thought this could happento a DP (displaced person) from Czechoslovakia.' That was Stan. For all he accomplished, he never let go of where he came from and how he was brought up. Roots."
On that special night, Stan and Jill stood on the ice with their four children - Meg, Scott, Jane and Christopher.
Stan thanked his coaches and the Wirtz family "for giving us our daily bread." He cited his three primary linemates during two iterations of the "Scooter Line": Kenny Wharram, Ab McDonald and Doug Mohns. Also, two wingers who flanked him later on: John Marks and Cliff Koroll. Then, Stan turned to another man beside the podium.
"I'd like to pay tribute to someone who besides givingme love and affection, gave me the greatest commodity in life," Mikita said. "He took me out of a Communist country and gave me something I think we're all striving for. He gave me my freedom. I'd like to pay tribute to the greatest guy I know. My pop."
When Mikita was 8, his biological father and mother sent him to Canada, where Joe and Anna Mikita lived. They were his uncle and aunt, but Stan soon regarded them as parents. It was there that Stan learned to speak English, to skate, to dream.
"On that banner night," Jill went on, "Stan put on his jersey for the last time. Then he took it off and put it on Joe. Everybody was losing it. Stan was a mess. I was a mess. Usually, on occasions like that, I can recall what I was wearing (laugh.) I can't even do that now."
Wirtz proclaimed Stan as "the finest player in the history of the Blackhawks franchise." Mikita won the Hart Trophy twice, the Art Ross four times and the Lady Byng twice. Decades later, he remains the team's all-time leader in points (1,467) and games played (1,394). No NHLer has yet to earn the Hart, Ross and Byng in consecutive seasons as he did in 1967 and 1968.
On Mikita's night, he received a two minute ovation. But the crowd was 13,837, well shy of capacity. The Blackhawks were not what they once were or are now. After a shambolic search for a radio outlet, that evening's game, their sixth of the season, was the season's first broadcast. But if perchance you could locate an obscure station, WYEN-107 FM, the voice making his NHL debut sounded sharp. Pat Foley, 26. Below, you could detect a pulse too. Doug Wilson was a young star on defense and that rookie draft choice amazed. Denis Savard, 19.
The Blackhawks beat the Washington Capitals, 8-4, behind Tom Lysiak's hat trick. During the third period a fan somehow slipped onto the rink, but not for long. Tony Esposito was the winning goalie, Keith Magnuson the winning coach.
"Stan by then was deep into the golf business," Jill went on. "Typically, he did all the small stuff. Drive an hour to Kemper Lakes at dawn, work behind the counter, never acting like a big shot. He forever felt blessed. By the jersey retirement, and much later, by being named anambassador and then the statues of him and Bobby Hull. Stan was very grateful to the end."
We all hope people will say nice things about us when we die. Stan Mikita didn't have to wait that long.
Video: Blackhawks honor Stan Mikita on opening night