Stan Mikita and I had some things in common other than our first names.
The Hall of Famer, who died Tuesday at 78, was from Czechoslovakia which was home to my mother’s side of the family, way back. On top of that, Mikita was the first Chicago Blackhawks player I ever profiled for Sport Magazine when that monthly was tops in the magazine field. I was with Mikita several times interviewing him for the profile and it was then that I got a good sense of his blend of his candor, humor and hockey IQ. (That’s IQ as in brains as well as intensity quotient.)
One of his coaches, Billy Reay, put it succinctly: “Mikita did more with everything he had than any player I ever saw.”
What I didn’t know — and could never have guessed — was the manner in which Mikita transformed himself from a Mr. McNasty to Mr. Nice Guy from one season to another. And to then win not one but two Lady Byng Trophies in a row. You had to have been there to understand what a miraculous personality turnabout this was by the NHL or any other standards. From hated to loved by flopping his brainwaves still boggles my mind, mostly because I don’t know anyone else in hockey who’s come close to executing such a fabulous feat.
There was a reason why a smallish player such as Mikita felt that he had to play tough in his early NHL seasons. “My opponents felt that they had to straighten me out,” Mikita said. “And I felt that I couldn’t last in the league if I let those guys come at me.”
The beauty was that the turnabout didn’t affect Mikita’s ability as both a productive offense machine nor his leadership qualities with Chicago. “Unless a man believes in himself, makes a total commitment to his career, and puts everything into it, he will never successful in anything he undertakes,” Mikita once said.
Stan was unequivocal about his love of The Windy City. Like his buddy Bobby Hull, Stan was tempted to jump to the World Hockey Association in the early 1970s when the baby league resembled a stickhandlers’ pot of gold. While Hull embraced Winnipeg, Mikita’s loyalty remained with Chicago’s Wirtz family and his beloved Blackhawks. No one would’ve blamed Mikita had he jumped to the WHA. After all, he spearheaded the Blackhawks in 1961 to their first Stanley Cup since 1938. What’s more, I’m proud of the fact that I not only was there for the Cup winner at Olympia Stadium in Detroit but also shared a beer with Mikita and the boys during the celebration afterwards at Detroit’s Leland Hotel.
I was also with Mikita one winter at a fantasy hockey camp at Lake Placid, N.Y. Mikita captained the Chicago team in a tourney that also featured the Red Wings led by Gordie Howe. One of Mikita’s fantasy players thought he would do an imitation of the troublemaking Stan of old. Not too clean and a bit outrageous. The thoughtless guy tried messing with Howe and was quickly informed by Mikita and the Chicago fantasy teammates what he was doing was neither healthy nor wise. But this foolish fantasy guy did it a second time and now more emphatically was told to cut it out, but he didn’t. On the third attempt, Howe laid out the guy like a carpet. Mikita’s smile was a mix of satisfaction and “I told you so.”
Not that everything was ginger-peachy between Mikita and myself. He deeply resented the fact that I wrote his biography, “Stan Mikita — The Turbulent Career of a Hockey Superstar” for Cowles Book Company while still was skating for the Hawks. It didn’t matter to Mikita that I had every right to do it but then again, he had his right to be miffed.
Our relationship was never the same after that, but it never diminished my appreciation of this remarkable fellow and Blackhawks legend — a unique virtuoso in more ways than most Hall of Famers.