When Stan Mikita was a player, he was considered a “go-to guy” for reporters. That is, while he was tearing up the National Hockey League, he was good at filling notebooks too. Whether the Blackhawks won, lost or tied, Mikita routinely answered our vacuous questions with honest, insightful answers.
Many years have passed, and there are no more 2-2 games to discuss, but Mikita remains as interesting as ever, full of pith and vinegar. I can say that honestly, having been honored to collaborate with the Hall of Famer on his just released autobiography, “Forever a Blackhawk.”
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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Our interview sessions began last winter and continued for several months. During that time frame, Mikita was diagnosed with stage one oral cancer, a circumstance that would require weeks of radiation treatments. Regardless, Mikita approached the book project with zeal, much as he regarded his medical situation as a challenge to be met and conquered. He survived having to deal with me and, of infinitely greater significance, recently got a clean bill of health from his doctor. What was that Bobby Hull said about his longtime pal and teammate? Stan Mikita is “tougher than a night in jail.”
When Mikita was collecting points and trophies, the saga of his childhood was common knowledge. But listening to him recreate his youth in explicit detail served as a poignant reminder of how remarkable this story is. If it weren’t all true, it would have to feel like fiction. As a kid growing up in Czechoslovakia, Stan saw German soldiers marching into his hometown, and not for a social visit. I’m guessing most of us never experienced that in our backyards, nor did we regard a piece of gum mailed from relatives in Canada as a gift worthy of Christmas morning.
But to leave home at age 8 for another country? Understand that when Stan’s parents consented to send him to move in with his uncle and aunt in St. Catharines, Ont., the reason was noble. Perhaps Stan would have a “better life.” However, when you are 8 and can’t speak a word of English, what exactly does a “better life” mean? Nowhere on Stan’s passport was it stamped that a “better life” guaranteed a byzantine path toward fame and fortune as a hockey player. Nobody knew how this movie would end. Nobody knew Mikita’s tale could indeed qualify as a movie.
When Stan first arrived in Canada, he looked to the sky and imagined every plane he saw was the one that would take him back to Czechoslovakia. We’d heard about that before. But what you’ll learn from the book is the litany of trials and tribulations he experienced, the physical and emotional scars, as he developed his social and athletic skills. Stan wasn’t born in skates, like so many thousands of Canadian boys. He didn’t know what hockey was, but soon he was hooked. And slashed and tripped. Stan was a tiny target; his motivation was massive.
In Czechoslovakia, the perception existed that a “better life” in America or Canada entailed a cushy existence. So when Stan noticed his Uncle Joe leaving for his job each day, confusion reigned. People actually work in the land of milk and honey? Absolutely, and that ethic imposed upon Stan by his new “parents” was a lesson he embraced. Stan was no bargain in school, but his classroom was too big for walls.
|"Forever a Blackhawk," by Stan Mikita and Bob Verdi, is now available at retailers everywhere. |
The prospect of Stan and Bobby Hull meeting as teenagers, playing in the same town, double dating, then graduating to Chicago where they helped propel the Blackhawks to a 1961 Stanley Cup championship borders on the occult. Except, of course, that’s precisely what happened. You can look it up. But the particulars are fascinating. Did you know how, by a freak occurrence, Stan discovered the virtues of the curved stick? How, by chance, he met future wife Jill? Guess who was in their wedding? Mike Ditka.
Stan’s family is his real treasure, and when he talks about Jill and their four children, he is both proud and objective. Professional athletes can be possessed by their occupations, and 22 seasons of road trips necessitated a strong wife and mother. Jill has been all of that, and, by the way, when it came to contributions for this book, she was terrific.
Stan is not a fountain of adjectives when asked to talk about himself, however, and that is why other voices were commissioned to participate in “Forever A Blackhawk.” Glenn Hall, who took rookie Stan under his wing, says his piece, as do Hull, Denis Savard and Tony Esposito. The latter three, along with Stan, are Blackhawk ambassadors, and Mikita is genuine in his appreciation of how the new direction of the franchise has impacted his second “better life.”
For too many seasons, Mikita felt unwelcome by the Blackhawks. Then, Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman, John McDonough as president and CEO, and everything changed. When Mikita was asked to rejoin the family, he turned to Jill and said, “I’ve waited 30 years for that phone call.” During that extended period when icons of the past were being treated in the past tense, Stan was hurt. But he never went on any crusades. It’s not his style to brood.
On the contrary, the Stan Mikita way is understated. He and Jill and the children opt to be regular folks, active in the community and charity affairs. Stan lives in Chicago, has lived in Chicago since he arrived without playing a single game in the minor leagues and probably always will live in Chicago. I’ve said this before: I have scoured the landscape trying to find someone with a bad word about Stan Mikita — a former teammate, a neighbor, a business associate — and I have failed.
That’s more important than the trophies or the statue. Ah, yes, the statue. As Stan Mikita says in his typically dry humor, he thought he would be forgotten. Instead, he’s being bronzed. Well deserved. No. 21 has done it all, and you can book it.