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Mikita recalled as tough competitor, innovator with Blackhawks

Peers express admiration for Hall of Famer, who died at 78

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Word of Stan Mikita's death reached Glenn Hall on his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta, on Tuesday afternoon, and Mr. Goalie took a deep breath and slowly began harvesting bittersweet memories of a friend and former teammate who was gone.

"Sometimes, it's not always a sad story," Hall said. "Stan has been hurting bad in recent years and sometimes it's a blessing when the pain is no more."

Mikita died in Chicago on Tuesday at age 78, and reaction from former teammates and opponents alike displayed a uniform respect for a granite-tough forward and a gentleman off the ice.

 

[RELATED: Mikita, Blackhawks icon, dies at 78Stan Mikita: 100 Greatest NHL Players]

 

News of Mikita's death found Hall by way of a call from Mikita's daughter, Jane, to the goalie's son, Pat.

"I'll remember the good times, and there were so many of them," said Hall, 86. 

And then his voice brightened as the happy recollections started to flow.

"Most of the memories can't be told here," said Hall, who was the Hall of Famer's teammate with the Chicago Blackhawks from 1958-59 through 1966-67, including a Stanley Cup championship in 1961. "But here's one: Stan was adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was young, moving to Canada (from Czechoslovakia). The Blackhawks would take the bus to play training camp games in St. Catharines, Ontario, where they lived, and we'd pass his house. His mom and dad would be outside waving at us when we went by. 

"[At] an exhibition game, they were sitting behind the bench, and when Stan would come off the ice, she'd be there with a white handkerchief to wipe his forehead, telling him, 'Stanley, you have to be strong like Booby Hull,' Bobby sounding like Booby with her accent."

Video: Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita passes away at age 78

Hall and Mikita became great friends, and the goalie was Mikita's best man at his 1963 Chicago wedding to Jill Cerny. Mikita's future bride was working in Chicago as a secretary to a congressman, and a mutual friend's introduction in 1962 led to the couple's romance.

In his 1969 autobiography, "I Play to Win: My Own Story," Mikita recalled guessing Jill's finger size and sitting with the engagement ring in his pocket during an endless political dinner in Washington. It was 3 a.m. before the party broke up, and Mikita recalled being half asleep, impatient to get back to the hotel.

In a moment not overflowing with romance, he blurted to Jill, "Listen, do you want to get married or not? If you do, here's the ring. That's it. I'm going back to the hotel."

Jill accepted, but only after making Mikita sweat for a bit.

"I was proud to be Stan's best man," said Hall, who loves a good practical joke but said almost ruefully that he pulled no prank that day.

Dave Keon, a Hall of Fame center with the Toronto Maple Leafs, first played against Mikita when they were opponents in Ontario junior hockey, Keon with St. Mike's, Mikita with St. Catharines.

"He was a great offensive player who had a little chip on his shoulder," Keon, 78, said with grand understatement. "I would play against Stan 14 games every year in the NHL. I didn't like him and I don't think he particularly liked me, things that started in junior and carried over to the NHL."

Dislike did not mean disrespect, however. Keon and other opponents of Mikita said they admired what he meant to the Blackhawks.

The scrappy Mikita had 154 penalty minutes in 1964-65, but 58 the following season and 12 in 1966-67, when he won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and playing ability. He won it again the next season.

"Stan was really competitive and he could be really chippy," said Keon, the Lady Byng winner in 1961-62 and 1962-63. "I think probably what happened is that he got involved with some guys who were a little bit bigger and he took a bit of a pounding and maybe he decided it was better that he not do that."

And Mikita clearly was worth more to his team on the ice than cooling his heels in the penalty box. 

He was one of the game's great innovators, to the chagrin of many still-unmasked goaltenders, largely inventing the obscenely curved stick that threatened the health of goalies or fans sitting 20 rows up behind the net, depending on a puck's trajectory.

"Practice was no fun," said Hall, who famously more than once was "painting the barn" on his Stony Plain farm when training camp would open, not answering the phone to report. 

"I think Stan missed the net more often than he hit it," joked Yvan Cournoyer, a Hall of Fame forward with the Montreal Canadiens who appeared in a lighthearted mid-1980s beer commercial with Mikita. Cournoyer spoke French, and Mikita replied in his native tongue.

Video: Eddie Olczyk on the passing of Stan Mikita

Cournoyer recalled Mikita's big heart and that this fierce opponent arrived unannounced in a Montreal hospital to visit him following his first back surgery in the 1970s.

"He was more dangerous for his own goalies," Cournoyer, 74, said of Mikita's stick. "The curve Bobby [Hull] had wasn't too bad, but Stan's was a boomerang. He didn't take many backhands with it."

Keon gently disagreed, saying that Mikita knew precisely how to pass off the heel of his stick and use the curve as a shooting weapon until the NHL decided a blade that was bent like a soup spoon needed to be regulated.

"I think of Stan's durability," said former Chicago goalie Tony Esposito, Mikita's teammate from 1969-70 until the latter's retirement following the 1979-80 season. "He was 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds soaking wet. But guys knew that if you messed with Stan, you'd get something back. He couldn't fight very well but he'd stick you, something like that. If you did your job against him, he didn't mind. But if you were a dirty player, then you got it back."

Glenn Healy, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, spoke of a hockey pioneer.

"Stan's a guy who helped build the game and pave the road for many, many players to drive," said the 55-year-old Healy, a goalie who broke into the NHL five years after Mikita retired. "He was an absolutely genuine person who was respected by everybody. Tough as nails, pound for pound. But I always found that Stan's heart was in the right place with this sport."

On a sad day in the NHL, with another legend lost, Healy nicely summed up Mikita's illustrious career.

"The stuff you can't buy, Stan had," he said. "You can't buy respect, being genuine and being respected by every one of your peers. And Stan had it."

Video: Dave Stubbs on the passing of Stan Mikita

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