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Remembering Stan Mikita: A legendary player with a Hall of Fame heart

Stan Mikita was one of the best to ever lace ’em up, but ask those closest to him and they’ll tell you he was twice the man that he was a player.

For more than four decades, almost all of Doug Wilson’s moral, professional, business and life decisions have been guided by a simple credo. He adopted it not long after he checked into the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago for training camp as a 20-year-old rookie and learned his road roommate would be Stan Mikita. And it was very much on Wilson’s mind as he carried Mikita’s casket as one of the former NHL superstar’s pallbearers at Mikita’s funeral in August.

Since that day in 1977, Wilson forged a splendid NHL career in which he led Chicago blueliners in scoring nine straight seasons. He won a Norris Trophy and was the first captain of the San Jose Sharks. He was an executive with the NHL Players’ Association, had four children and is now the third-longest tenured GM in the NHL. And through it all, he never, ever forgot the lessons Stan Mikita taught him. “When I make decisions today, either in business or my personal life, I go by ‘WWSD,’ ” Wilson said. “What Would Stan Do? Two very important things in my life I got from Stan and from (former Blackhawk) Keith Magnuson, who got them from Stan. One is the greatest gift you can give anybody is your time. And the other thing I believe in, and I know I got this from Stan, is you make a living from what you get and you make a life by what you give. And nobody gave more than Stan. Nobody.”

In a 15-minute conversation with Wilson about Mikita, the subject turned to hockey for about 30 seconds. And as brilliant as Mikita’s 22-year career with the Blackhawks was, the legacy he left in his 78 years on Earth extends far beyond hockey.

Mikita’s youngest daughter, Jane Mikita-Gneiser, remembers her father telling her she might see her last name in the newspaper from time to time and the kids at her school might know who her father was, but, “that’s where it ends. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and you’re not going to be treated any differently.” When the Special Olympics were founded in 1968, Mikita was brought on as one of the first celebrities and he enlisted his four children to be “huggers” for the athletes as they finished races. And every year, Mikita and his family spent their Thanksgiving day at the La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago helping to serve meals to the needy and families of patients.

Mikita also helped found the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired in 1973 when he learned one of his business partners, Irv Tiahnybik, had a hearing-impaired son who was also a goalie. The school still operates to this day and spawned the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. And in the ultimate case of things coming full circle, a young hearing-impaired boy by the name of Kevin Delaney was once one of the students there. Delaney is now the skating and skills coach for the Blackhawks.

There’s no doubt Mikita’s sense of duty and humility came from his beginnings. Born Stanislav Gvoth in the former Czechoslovakia in 1940, Mikita spent the first five years of his life under Nazi rule, which was replaced by Communist rule after the Second World War. His parents made the agonizing decision to send him to St. Catharines, Ont., with his uncle and aunt, Joe and Anne Mikita, in 1948. Mikita came to Canada unable to speak English but was placed in the fourth grade. Right around then, he also started to play hockey. Mikita would later say that as he put his children to bed at night he would reflect on what a difficult decision his parents made letting him go. He was bullied as a child and referred to as ‘DP’ or ‘displaced person’ but rose above it to become an outstanding hockey prospect, teaming with Bobby Hull on the St. Catharines Teepees before joining the Blackhawks in 1959.

So much about Mikita’s career was amazing. He was one of the smartest players ever, something Hull realized in junior when the two players switched positions to exploit Hull’s speed and Mikita’s high on-ice IQ. But two of Mikita’s accomplishments stand out over all the others.

The first came during the 1962 playoffs, the year after he won his only Stanley Cup, when he scored five goals and 21 points in just 12 playoff games. It was a record that stood for eight years until Phil Esposito broke it in 1970, but Mikita accomplished his feat playing in only two series, not three as players in the post-1967 expansion era had or the four series that players now play. Of the 246 times a player has scored 20 or more points in a post-season, Mikita and Gordie Howe are the only ones to do it from the two-series era.

The second came in 1966-67 and ’67-68, when Mikita made one of the most remarkable transformations in NHL history. In 1963-64 and ’64-65, Mikita racked up a combined 300 penalty minutes, one fewer than Ted Green for the NHL lead. But two years later, Mikita embarked on two seasons in which he combined for just 26 penalty minutes, a feat that earned him back-to-back Lady Byng Trophies. But the most impressive facet of the accomplishment is he did not suffer one bit as a player, winning back-to-back Hart Trophies and scoring titles to go with the two he recorded when he was one of the most penalized players. Incredibly, Mikita accumulated 739 penalty minutes in his first seven full NHL seasons and just 511 in his final 13 full seasons.

The story of Mikita’s epiphany has taken a number of forms over the years, but the gist of it was it was borne out of a conversation he had with his daughter, Meg, the morning after one of his games. “She said to me, ‘I watched you last night and you were really good,’ and I said, ‘Well, thank you, dear,’ ” Mikita told The Hockey News in 2007. “Then she asked me, ‘When that man with the stripes on his sweater blew the whistle, why did Uncle Bobby (Hull) and Uncle Kenny (Wharram) go one way and you went the other way and sat down all by yourself? Were you being a bad boy?’ That really made me think. I decided then that when I did get a penalty, I would go to the referee and say, ‘Geez, I’m really sorry, sir.’ I would kill them with kindness.”

In addition to being credited with perfecting the curved stick in the early 1960s, Mikita became the first Hawk to have his number retired and, along with Hull and former NBA legend Michael Jordan, he has a statue that sits outside the United Center. When Mikita sat out a game against Philadelphia in 1975-76, Flyers coach Fred Shero said it was impossible to accurately judge the Hawks, “because the brains of the operation is missing.” Former Blackhawks coach Billy Reay once called Mikita, “the greatest centerman to ever play in the NHL,” and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, who signed Mikita to a five-year deal for $1 million after Mikita turned down a seven-year deal for $15 million from the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association, said that, “Stan Mikita is the greatest player to wear a Blackhawk uniform.”

Mikita was also an impressive golfer. After his career ended, he became the head golf pro at the Kemper Lakes Golf Club in Chicago and later became a member at the Medinah Golf Club, which has hosted three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. “Whenever we played, Stan always had to give me strokes,” Wilson said, “and I willingly took the strokes.”

After playing more games, registering more assists and scoring more points than any Blackhawk in history, Mikita and his aura never dissipated with the organization, even after the Hawks were revived from the dead under Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and won three Stanley Cups. Mikita has always been revered in Chicago, a point that was driven home by pop culture when the Mike Myers hit movie Wayne’s World featured Stan Mikita’s Donuts, complete with a giant replica of Mikita on top of the fictitious shop in suburban Chicago.

When Mikita was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2011, those whom he told to pay his kindness forward rallied around him and were there to help care for him during the last three years of his life as he lived with Lewy body dementia, an affliction that robbed Mikita of all the memories of his exploits on and off the ice. The hockey world and the many people he touched in his life will be left to carry them on.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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