Video: Stan Mikita Chicago's all-time leading scorer
In 1940, the 8-year-old who was born Stanislav Gvoth left his home in Sokolce, Czechoslovakia. Father Juraj was a maintenance man in a textile factory. Mother Emilia raised vegetables to feed the family. They adored their son, so much that they agreed to send him to Canada, where he could have a better life.
Joe, Emilia's brother, and his wife lived there, having departed Czechoslovakia. They had no children, but they had freedom. Young Stanislav duly noted that, as well as amenities in their modest home: electricity, a refrigerator, space to spread out instead of sleeping four to a room.
"I really didn't understand Communism until I escaped from it," he said. "I vaguely remember German soldiers coming through our village in Czechoslovakia. Even after World War II ended, it was tough. But I still felt homesick in Canada. Whenever I saw a plane fly over, I figured it was the one to take me back to my parents."
Games: 1,394 | Goals: 541 | Assists: 926 | Points: 1,467
But his trip to Canada was not the short visit he thought it would be. He soon referred to Uncle Joe and Aunt Anna as his father and mother, and took their surname; Stanislav Gvoth became Stan Mikita. And as proof that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, they resided in St. Catharines, Ontario, where a junior hockey team, the Teepees, would be sponsored by the Chicago Black Hawks.
The rest really is history. After a three-game taste of the NHL in 1958-59, Mikita emerged as one of the greatest centers in League annals over 22 seasons, all with Chicago. In 2011, he and fellow icon Bobby Hull were honored with statues outside the United Center. That was 31 years after Mikita retired, yet he still led Chicago in regular-season games played (1,394), playoff games (155), regular-season assists (926) and playoff assists (91). Mikita ranked second to Hull in regular-season goals (541) and third in playoff goals (59).
Mikita's treasure trove of keepsakes? As massive as his heart and competitive spirit. He is the only player to win the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and Lady Byng Trophy in the same season, doing so in consecutive seasons, 1966-67 and 1967-68. He also won the Art Ross Trophy in 1963-64 and 1964-65. Mikita was named to the First All-Star Team six times and the Second All-Star Team twice. In 1976, he won the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. In 1980, his No. 21 was retired and raised to the rafters at Chicago Stadium. In 1983, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. For all he meant, on and off the ice, Mikita was brought on as team ambassador in 2008.
"I thought for sure that by then, I would be forgotten," Mikita said. "Instead, I am still being remembered. How lucky can a guy be?"
Mikita's odyssey with the sport began on the streets of St. Catharines, where he noticed neighborhood children playing hockey with a rubber ball. A couple of older kids invited him to partake and, despite the language barrier, Mikita gradually fit in. He had skated only once, borrowing his brother's pair back in Czechoslovakia, but one thing led to another. Before long, Mikita evolved into a hockey player, albeit a raw and undisciplined one. He was small but feisty -- a calling card he would retain in the NHL. Mikita also encountered Rudy Pilous, coach of the Teepees.
"He knew everything going on in town," said Mikita. "Rudy had his eye on me, and so, I guess, did the Black Hawks. He asked me if I was serious about hockey, or whether I was going to be a punk. I got the message. I also got a tryout and made the team. It was then that the idea of being paid to play a game I loved struck me. If I hadn't left Czechoslovakia, I probably would have joined the army. Or maybe the Communist Party. Or, with my attitude, been sent to Siberia."
Instead, Mikita began hanging with his Teepees teammate Hull. They played together on occasion and switched positions. "I was a center, Stan was a winger," Hull said. "Rudy figured out I was too dumb to be a center, and Stan was too smart to be a winger. That's how I ended up on the left and Stanley in the middle."
With Pilous now coaching in Chicago, Mikita got the call to join the Black Hawks as an emergency replacement during the 1958-59 season. His first faceoff at Chicago Stadium was against Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens.
"I was in a daze," Mikita said. "I looked up from the circle and wound up staring at his belly button. He had to outweigh me by 60 pounds. My knees were shaking. My head was spinning."
After that brief introduction, Mikita returned to the Black Hawks in 1959-60 and never left. With mentors such as Glenn Hall and Ted Lindsay, Mikita soon was a fixture on the ice and in the city. He contributed mightily to the Black Hawks' Stanley Cup victory in 1961, scoring 11 points in 12 games, and then became in Hull's words, "pound for pound, the greatest hockey player who ever played. He was tougher than a night in jail."
Edgy and diminutive (5-foot-9, 159 pounds), Mikita absorbed his share of hits. He did not recoil. When he won his first Art Ross in 1964, he had 146 penalty minutes. In 1965, again the scoring champion, Mikita was again a truculent sort, finishing with 154 penalty minutes. Fatherhood evoked a transformation. Meg -- Stan and wife Jill's first of four children -- was watching the first period of a game in New York before bedtime. Stan was involved, as usual, when Meg turned to Jill and inquired: "Why does Daddy always sit by himself? Why doesn't he sit with Uncle Bobby (Hull) and Uncle Kenny (Wharram)?" Mikita took note. Doing penance in the penalty box served no purpose. In 1966-67, when the new Mikita won the Lady Byng for sportsmanship, he had 12 penalty minutes.
Mikita, quite literally, was ahead of the curve in many respects. During a practice, his stick got caught in the crack of the doorway by the bench. The blade bent. Rather than grab a replacement, Mikita continued to practice. When he fired a shot with that "banana", he liked what he saw. The puck moved differently. Later on in his career, Mikita decided to wear a helmet full time. He eventually designed a model.
"I didn't worry about being thought of as a chicken," Mikita said. "Not after some of the hard knocks I had taken. I didn't have to worry about it destroying my good looks, either. I didn't have any to destroy."
A consummate playmaker, Mikita played with a spate of wings. He centered the "Scooter Line" with Ab McDonald and Wharram, then a second incarnation with Doug Mohns and Wharram -- a highly productive threesome during the 1960s. On occasion, Mikita and Hull would link up, statues waiting to happen. In 2010, the Chicago Sun-Times published a list of its greatest players in franchise history. Mikita was No. 1, Hull No. 2.
Mikita, Jill and family were full-time residents of Chicago, where they endeared themselves to the community. Mikita answered his own phone, cut his own lawn, and was a serial giver. When a friend mentioned that his deaf son loved hockey, Mikita helped launch the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.
"When I came to Canada, I couldn't understand what people were saying," Mikita said. "I might as well have been deaf. So I could understand what these kids were dealing with, barriers, lack of confidence and self-esteem. Amazing. Because I was able to skate a little bit and shoot a puck, I have been incredibly blessed. I scratch my head sometimes. How did this happen? Like I mentioned before. Fiction. Except it's true."
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