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'Hockey Day' Q&A with Stan Mikita

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO -- Former Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita didn't stand out among those at Sunday's "Hockey Day in America" celebration at Millenium Park merely because of his stature in the Windy City.

He also stood out because underneath his dark coat was a loud red, white and blue cotton sweater with "U.S.A" embroidered diagonally across the front.

"I'm wearing this one, because I couldn't find one that said, 'Hockey in the U.S.A,'" Mikita quipped. "I've had this for years and years, and just didn't quite have the time or opportunity to wear it anywhere. Today was a day that I could."

So, he did while welcoming fellow die-hard American hockey fans to Sunday's celebration -- despite the wet, cold conditions. In between public appearances, Mikita wandered into the makeshift media room at Millenium Park's Park Grille restaurant and wound up in a conversation with an reporter.

Among the topics discussed?

His nationality -- and nationalities -- his thoughts on hockey's development in the U.S. and his recollection of how he became so enamored with the sport that got his name a permanent spot in the rafters of the United Center.

Q:  I like your sweater, Stan. Very festive choice. And you're a Canadian.

SM: I used to be. First of all, I was Czechoslovakian. Now that those countries have split, I'm actually Slovak. So I was a citizen of Slovakia. I was a citizen of Canada for a numbers of years and I grew up in Canada. After that I came to Chicago, and my children were all born here and so on. So, I'm proud to say now that I'm a United States citizen.

Q: Well, that's as good a way as any to lead into a question about today's "Hockey Day in America" celebration. What are your thoughts on it, after seeing all these people out here today?

SM: Well, I don't think anybody [in America] has ever done it with hockey before. They've done it with other sports. Of course, hockey was always No.4 of the team sports [in the U.S.], but I think they've made quite a bit of noise to get themselves out of that last spot. The public is more aware of what's going on with hockey now.

Q: Especially in some of the bigger markets, like here in Chicago.

SM: I think the biggest thing was when Rocky Wirtz became the owner [of the Blackhawks] and told the press to tell the fans, "I'm going to give you what you're wishing for, and that's home games on television." A lot of people were skeptical, but he came out on opening night and said the home games will be on TV, and you would not believe the standing ovation he got. It was very well deserved.

As far as hockey in the U.S., to me, there have been three major developments. The first was when the U.S. won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. The second was when the U.S. won it 20 years later in 1980 with Mike Eruzione and that group. Then the third thing was when Wayne Gretzky got traded from Edmonton to L.A. There were headlines all over the world and everybody knew he was going to L.A.

Now, you've got the hotshot stars and starlets coming to the games. We'd never seen that at a hockey game before -- with the movie stars coming and things like that. Now, some of them have actually involved themselves by getting some money out there and they've became part-owners.

Q: Getting back to Chicago for a second, I once had somebody tell me that back when you and Bobby Hull played here, the Blackhawks were almost the most popular team in town. Is that how you remember it?

SM: We didn't own the town outright, but we were pretty close.

Q: It got pretty close to being like that again last spring and summer around here. And when a sport is that popular in a big city, that's got to help spark interest.

SM: It definitely does. My grandsons, they're at the age now where they'd like to play -- and they've been skating now for a couple years. They're 8, 6 and 4 years old and they just love it. They say, "Grandpa, are you going to go watch us skate?" I say, "Are you kidding? I'll be the first guy in line." They say, "Oh really? What's a line?"

Q: How many grandchildren do you have?

SM: (pulling the recorder close) I have nine grandchildren. NINE! We have six girls and three boys.

Q: Do you think we might have a young Mikita centerman or two coming along?

SM: Well, we're not sure what position they're going to play just yet. We'll have to see.

Q: Today's a bit of a hockey smorgasbord, isn't it? You've got the Heritage Classic going on up in Calgary. You've got "Hockey Day in America" with games all day in the U.S. and then the Hawks and Penguins to cap it all off. Is it a little bit of hockey overload for you?

SM: Not really. I'd be watching hockey somewhere anyway. But I wonder what's going to happen up in Calgary. I'm not sure what the weather's going to be like up there. I hope they don't get one of these [wet and cold] days up there. That's the only worry about playing these outdoor games, like pond hockey. Speaking of which, I was watching TV recently and saw something about how in Madison, Wisc., there's 250 teams that come in for the Pond Hockey championships each year. Two-hundred and fifty teams? There's maybe 17,000 players there … all in one week?

"Good thing they didn't ask for the birth certificates until halfway through the year. We'd already been playing with them." -- Stan Mikita

Q: That sounds like fun to me.

SM: Doesn't it?

Q: Did you play a lot of pond hockey when you were young?

SM: As a kid, yes I did.

Q: In Czechoslovakia or Canada?

SM: Canada. I was eight years old when I left [Czechoslovakia] and it took me another year to even understand at least three words of the English language. It was Christmastime when I got [to St. Catharine's, Ont.] and again, not knowing much English, I didn't know much about hockey. But the next year in the Fall, a buddy of mine came up to me with the newspaper in his hand and he said, "Can you read the paper yet?" I said, "Not really." He said, "You know hockey?" I said, "Yeah, I know hockey." He said, "Well they have a sign-up for a league they're forming with the Canadian Legion. They're going to be the sponsors of this."

He said, "They're going to name six teams and they're going to draw our names out of a hat." I said, "Well, I don't have any skates." He said, "Don't worry, I'll get you some skates." As it turned out, my adopted father took me to a shoe shop, a repair shop, and in the back there were skates all over the place. I said, "I'm a size 5 or 6," but my dad was saying, "Give him a size 8." I said, "That's too big … too big." But my dad insisted, "Give him a size eight." So, the guy in the shop says, "Give me another sock." He rolls it up and stuffs it in the toe area, and it fit perfectly. For three years I used those skates. They grew with me. But the next year is when I really started to get into hockey.

Q: What was it that got you into it?

SM: Well, one of the top programs in the area that me and my buddy wanted to sign up for was looking for players -- but they were only taking players who were 12 and 13. They turned us away because we were only 10. So, my buddy comes over again later with the paper, and I said, "We already did that and they turned us away."  He says, "This is the second time. They didn't get enough players the first time." So, we go there again, and I said to my buddy, "That guy from the last time will be there and he knows us." My buddy says, "Don't worry. There's one guy in each corner and we'll go to another guy. We'll make sure he doesn't see us." And that's exactly what we did.

[Mikita pretends to creep past the guy and then fakes a deep voice] We said, "Uh, we'd like to sign up." The guy says, "Well, how old are ya?" [In a squeaky voice] "Twelve!" Luckily, they needed somebody, so they said, "Fill this out and we're going to need your birth certificates." Well, good thing they didn't ask for the birth certificates until halfway through the year. We'd already been playing with them. So, that was my start.

Q: What level was that again?

SM: That was a league sponsored by the Canadian Legion, same as the American Legion. After that, I became a rink rat. I'd get there at five in the morning, skate for a couple hours and then go to school. Then, we'd go back in the evening  after school -- when there was public skating. Sometimes somebody had rented the rink for a game and didn't have enough players. So, they'd look at you and say, "Hey kid, can you play?" I'd play games that way sometimes. They asked me to be the goalie one time and I tried it. The puck hit me in the leg, and I said, "I don't think that's for me."

Q: Wearing a helmet was for you, though -- back when hardly anybody else wore one. Did you start wearing it out of necessity?

SM: I actually did need to start wearing a helmet, because a guy gave me a two-hander right over the head. And another  time there was a deflected puck that took part of my ear off. After that one, I played two days later -- which was kind of stupid, now that I think about it. But that's when I started wearing a helmet. I was like, "Let's see … we're covered here, here and here [with padding], but not here?" So, I was one of the first to wear a helmet.

Now they're required. Thanks for sharing that -- and thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

SM: [looking outside at the cold rain] Hey, no problem. It's a lot better than out there, right?
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