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THE VERDICT: The faceoff that didn't count, but still mattered

Team Historian Bob Verdi writes about the opening night ceremonies that honored the late Stan Mikita

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

She had dropped the ceremonial first puck an hour ago. But now, among family and friends in a United Center suite, Jill Mikita was still working the tissues.

"It's been overwhelming," she said. "Stan would have thought this was too much. Playing hockey was his job, and he did it well, but he didn't go around acting like a star. I mean, if he had to at home, he washed the floors. So he wouldn't have wanted all this fuss."

Video: TOR@CHI: Blackhawks pay tribute to Stan Mikita

Sunday night, before the Blackhawks staged their home opener, they bade farewell to Stan Mikita, a Hall of Famer who played his entire career here, lived here, and loved it here until he passed away in August at age 78.

Waves of affection and admiration for this great man ensued, but Sunday night felt special. Jill, his widow, came on to the ice with her and Stan's children, and the grandchildren. The video presentation about No. 21 was brilliant. Then, Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Foley asked for 21 seconds of silence from the sellout crowd of 21,812, in memory not only of Stan, but Ab McDonald, his former sidekick on the "Scooter Line."

Hockey was back in town, but bring those tissues.

Sunday's big day began with the annual red carpet celebration in the United Center Atrium, where fans gathered to watch the current Blackhawks come marching in, one by one. Some of the new players need introductions, but none of them require any clothing. These guys can dress.

Video: Sights and Sounds: 2018 Home Opener

In uniform, they will wear "21" patches, as seen Sunday night when Chicago's boys of winter lined up for another red carpet affair, this one on the rink remembering a legend who brought honor to the sweater for 22 years. Also, there will be a "21" behind either goal cage at the United Center. Mikita's number has been retired and raised to the ceiling for decades. He still holds most of the scoring records for the franchise, and he retired in 1980.

"The organization has been unbelievable to us," Jill continued, smiling while sniffling. "I say Stan wouldn't have wanted all this, but the Blackhawks have been so good to us. When [President & CEO] John McDonough called him in 2008, shortly after he took over, and asked Stan to be an ambassador, to come back to the franchise, I was with him in Florida. Stan hung up the phone and started crying. He waited 30 years for that phone call."

Surely, Stan would have been amused by Sunday night's guests - the Toronto Maple Leafs. For years, they and the Blackhawks scratched each others' eyes out. Now, out of respect, the visitors stood at their bench, clapping during the Mikita fete, or tapping sticks. John Tavares, a free agent hired to help the Maple Leafs toward their first Stanley Cup in 51 years, joined Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Jill for the faceoff that didn't count, but still mattered anyway.

"None of these players now saw Stan play," she reasoned. "And you really can't tell anything from a video, as good as that one was tonight. But their alternate captain, Tavares, said something to me about how I should be proud. Which was nice of him. And I am. I am proud."

Video: Blackhawks honor Stan Mikita on opening night

During the Original Six era, to which Mikita was indoctrinated when he was young and impressionable, there was scant bonhomie among teams. They played each other 14 times per season, and familiarity fanned contempt. So did unwelcome results.

Mikita was on the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks squad that sought a repeat until they were spilled by the Maple Leafs in the 1962 Final. In 1967, the loaded Blackhawks finished atop the National Hockey League standings for the first time and were poised to seize another Stanley Cup. But the Maple Leafs, laden with veterans, upset the Blackhawks, 4 games to 2, in the Semifinals.

After splitting four games, the Maple Leafs visited the Stadium for Game 5 to haunt the Blackhawks once again. Tied 2-2 after one period, the Maple Leafs summoned Terry Sawchuk to relieve a jittery Johnny Bower in goal. The Blackhawks peppered Sawchuk immediately, and a rocket off Bobby Hull's stick from close-in struck Sawchuk in the left shoulder. He went down in a heap, and Bower prepared to replace his replacement.

Instead, a woozy Sawchuk got up and proceeded to stand on his head. The Blackhawks riveted 37 pucks at him and he stopped all 37, many acrobatically, toward a 3-1 victory. Billy Reay, the bereaved coach, called it "one of the greatest goalkeeping displays I have ever seen." The Maple Leafs eliminated the shocked Blackhawks in Game 6, then won the Stanley Cup, their most recent, by downing the Montreal Canadiens.

Many of Mikita's "moments' occurred against the Maple Leafs, who routinely took runs at him, with their bodies and their lumber. During a storied rumble at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1963, both teams partook of a protracted taffy pull. When combatants sought elbow room, they found space on the benches, which were empty. All players were on the ice, doing what they did in those rancorous days.

One of Mikita's frequent tormentors was Bob Pulford, a Maple Leaf who was a Hall of Famer in the making. They clashed often. When Pulford got chosen by the expansion Los Angeles Kings, Mikita thought it might be over between them. Not. They were both ejected from a game in the Forum, and en route to their respective dressing rooms, they renewed pleasantries with a stick fight in the hallway.

Little wonder why, when Pulford became general manager/coach of the Blackhawks, their relationship was chilly. But on Sunday night, even though the Maple Leafs were in the building, there was only warmth during a stirring tribute for an absent friend, No. 21.

"I just wish I could hear his voice one more time," Jill concluded. "I wish I could hear that laugh again. But, I have to let go. We had a wonderful life together, but I have to let go."

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