We lost a legend in Chicago the other day. Stan Mikita.
He wasn’t simply a great hockey player. He was a great ambassador for his sport. For all sports. He was simply a great man.
A cruel form of dementia robbed him of his memory the last few years. Heartbreaking stuff.
I wasn’t going to mention this at TMG, where we are all cranking up for the start of another college football season. Many of you, I know, couldn’t care less about hockey. No problem there. It was such a regional sport for such a long time.
But I am feeling this sadness at Mikita’s death at 78, which no longer seems that old. And even if you didn’t follow hockey in the golden age of the Original Six, when Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were magical forces on the Chicago Blackhawks, you should know this:
They were what we loved about sports. For all the right reasons. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Bobby Hull was the Golden Jet. Babe Ruth on skates. Flying down the ice to launch a slapshot that could go through a brick well.
Stan Mikita was that pesky little center, clever and athletic. How he always managed to be in the right place to make the right play—it was amazing. And he made it look so simple. He also was one of the first players I remember wearing a helmet—he was ahead of his time.
The Original Six era was a wonderfully simple time.
Hockey was more of a chess game then. Move the puck around, look for an opening. Nowadays guys fly down the ice, bodies hurtling everywhere, trying to find the puck. It’s much more athletic today. But ’60s hockey had its anticipation, its intrigue.
In Chicago, every road game was on Channel 9. Home games were blacked out, which was weird because the Blackhawks were the toughest ticket in town.
My dad took me to see Mikita and his Indianhead sweater friends in the early ’60s. Because the game was sold out, we were consigned to Second Balcony standing room. People were smoking, drinking, arguing.
I’m sure my father was saying, ``Never again.’’
I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Moments like that are probably why I chose the not-gonna-grow-up life of a sportswriter.
Looking back, it’s a testament to under-sized ``Stosh’’ Mikita that he could compete so well in a league against Detroit meanie Gordie Howe and big regal Canadien Jean Beliveau. But he did.
Even the Chicago Stadium was a pristine world in those days. No ads on the boards, no ads anywhere except for the organ loft, where a simple ``Canadian Club’’ banner, if I remember right, adorned a velvety drape.
The Stadium in those days was just white ice, white boards, red seats and a big smoke ring above it all.
Oh, and the dingy yellow scoreboard. The time for for the game and penalties was kept on little circles. Never did figure out how to read those with any degree of accuracy.
The first time I saw Mikita off the ice was when I was in high school. I was a vendor at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, and we were ``encouraged’’ to also work at the Stadium, so I gave it a try, mainly to see the Blackhawks.
The problem was, I had Second Balcony Coke and I seem to remember picking up the Coke in the basement and walking it up. Took forever. Even in those days, doing all of that for $1 a load made no financial sense. And you didn’t see the game walking all of those stairs, either.
But down in that basement, I saw Mikita working on his stick outside the Blackhawks’ dressing room. He was just standing there in long underwear, the stick in a vice, and he was using a little blowtorch to heat and curve the stick.
Always looking for an edge, he was one of the first guys to curve his stick.
We didn’t dare disturb him, a master at work
I had the honor and privilege of playing a quiet round of golf with Mr. Mikita eight or 10 years ago. Just a simple threesome with him and a writer-friend of mine who was doing an ``18 Holes with. . .’’ article for a magazine.
He was much gentler that day than the sharp-tongue, quick-witted Mikita I had seen at a much-earlier Blackhawks alumni golf thing.
That outing was at a then-brand-new golf course, Catigny. Because the rough hadn’t grown in yet, the pro explained to everyone before the shotgun start, it was OK to roll the ball in the rough.
``If we hit it in the fairway, is it OK to kick it into the rough?’’ Stosh said. Everyone laughed.
During the round, Bobby Hull emerged from the woods, a golf club in one hand and a beer in the other. ``Anybody see a Titleist?'' he said.
We all laughed. How he had launched a ball over those woods from his hole to ours was. . . impressive.
But that was when we were young.
On this quiet ``18 holes with. . .’’ day, Mikita was very low-keyed and wise. An accomplished golfer, he had been a teaching pro after his hockey days and still hit the ball really well. He did admit to myriad aches and pains, which were diminished by a daily regimen of stretching. I understand now what he was talking about. And my body is only a victim of old age, not years of athletic pounding.
He was not a big man, 5-foot-9 and still trim. I had been very anxious about not embarrassing myself in front of this childhood hero. That was fueled especially because we were playing at Kemper Lakes. Any course with the word ``lakes’’ in its name is perilous for my low-ball game.
I managed to play OK for 17 holes. Maybe hit a ball or two in the water, but everybody hits a ball or two in the water at Kemper Lakes. On the watery 18th, I played safe off the tee to minimize the initial water. But I dunked a couple of balls in the water near the green after that.
As I pulled out a third ball, wanting to show Mikita I could get this done, the old Stosh resurfaced.
``Do you want me to run over to Sportmart,’’ he said, ``and get you a box of balls?’’
When I learned a few years later that dementia had taken away Mikita’s memory, it was wrenching but not unfamiliar. We went through a similar heartbreak with my mother.
While we were devastated when she left us, there was a sense of relief, at a certain level. She had checked out, for all practical purposes, long before that. She was never going to get better.
And we were able to stop worrying about what was going on, or not going on, inside her head.
We were free to remember her as the vibrant person she had been.
I hope that is happening for the Mikita family.
And I hope they know that we remember the great Stan Mikita in his prime—an athletic hero who brought joy to the world with a precise hockey game, a sharp wit and class.[/membership]