Stan Mikita's kids share memories of their dad

Thousands of Chicago Blackhawks fans have a Stan Mikita story.

Whether you ran into him after a game, at Braxton's restaurant in Oak Brook or Art's Tavern in Hillside or on a suburban golf course, the hockey legend would take 10 or 20 minutes to make each fan feel special.

He'd sign a hockey stick, a puck, a program or a napkin until the last person was satisfied.

That's why the outpouring of support was immediate and overwhelming when, 16 months ago, his family revealed that Stan is suffering from what is believed to be Lewy Body dementia, a disease that damages a person's memories, disrupts attention and alertness, and in most cases causes hallucinations.

Here is how Meg, the oldest of Mikita's four children, put it on Facebook.

“To my dear friends near and far … thank you, thank you, thank you for your well wishes, prayers and for sharing your memories of my dad. It reminds me how many lives he has touched. To my childhood friends my dad was not “Stan Mikita,” but just your friend's dad, your neighbor and the crazy guy who would spend 4 hours cutting his grass in goofy shorts, a Walkman and a cold beer. … Please continue to keep us in your positive thoughts ...”

Stan was one of the most famous hockey players to lace up a pair of skates as well as a prototypical suburban dad.

Since Stan no longer can share his stories, his wife and kids opened their hearts to talk about what kind of father he was, how fatherhood shaped his game and how the game shaped him.

Psst: It's a girl

Stan Mikita's foray into fatherhood didn't get off to a rousing start. He was a thousand miles away when Meg was born on Feb. 2, 1964.

The Blackhawks were in Boston playing the Bruins that night, so Jill, Stan's wife, called the team hotel to deliver the good news.

She was shuffled between three people before getting Stan on the horn.

Hotel operator: “I'm sorry, there's a hold on (the players') rooms. Coach said no calls can go through.”

Coach Billy Reay: “Ahhh, I don't know, Jill, it's game day.”

Roommate Ab McDonald (whispering): “Aw, Jill, he's sleeping. I don't think I should wake him.”

Jill to McDonald: “ABBY!”

McDonald (laughing): “OK, I'll let you talk to him.”

Finally, the news of Meg's arrival was delivered and Stan saw his newborn daughter the next day when the Hawks returned from Boston.

The Mikitas went on to have three more children - Scott, Jane and Chris - and now have nine grandchildren.


Stan Mikita with his son Scott, Meg and the family dog Heidi, 1966 COURTESY OF MIKITA FAMILY

Stan Mikita the father wasn't much different from many fathers of that time.

“What was it like growing up with your father?” Chris said. “Did he make you mow the lawn? Did he make you do your chores? Did he make you make your bed, respect your mom? He was no different than any other father in that respect.”

Of course, that was when he was home. The hockey season being what it is, Stan was mostly absent from October until March or April ... and then he'd be home nearly every hour of every day until training camp started again.

On the ice, Mikita would fight anybody and everybody early in his career, despite being similar in size to Patrick Kane: just 5 feet, 9 inches and 170 pounds.

The fiery, tough-as-nails centerman spent 97 or more minutes in the penalty box in five of his first six seasons, topping out at a whopping 154 in 1964-65, just 23 minutes shy of the league leader.

During the next season, though, Mikita changed his tune, thanks to 4-year-old Meg, who asked her father one day after a game: “Daddy, how come on TV you always sit alone while the other men are playing hockey?”

That season, Mikita was in the penalty box for just 58 minutes.

The year after that, a paltry 12 minutes.

It was during that 1966-67 campaign that Mikita won the league MVP (Hart) trophy, was the league's leading scorer (for which he got the Art Ross Trophy) and won the sportsmanship award (Lady Byng Trophy). He's the only player in league history to win all three trophies in one season - and he did it twice, pulling it off again in 1967-68.

Now 52, Meg has always marveled at her dad's steely determination in quitting things that weren't good for him.

“He quit smoking,” she said. “He just quit smoking. Then he quit drinking. He just stopped. He didn't go to any programs, he didn't do any gum ... nothing.

“Even the way he played hockey. Like the fights he would get into? I mean, that's emotional. You consciously make the choice to have the fight because you react. And he just stopped doing that.”

That legendary temper certainly rubbed off on Chris, the youngest Mikita, who often would explode in anger at referees on the soccer field during his youth.

As he looked toward the stands, Chris would no longer see his dad.

“He'd be like, 'I'm outta here. I don't even know this kid,'” Chris said. “I'd get home and he'd be real short with me.

“I'd talk to Mom and she'd tell me I didn't perform very well. I'd say, 'I did my best.' She said, 'We're not talking about that. We're talking about that loud mouth you've got.'”


The entire Mikita clan vacations in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2013. COURTESY OF MIKITA FAMILY

All of the Mikita kids were athletes. Not world-class, 541-goal, Hall of Fame athletes like their father, but no slouches, either.

One sport, though, is conspicuously absent on their resumes: Hockey.

Not one of them took to the ice for any length of time, and that was just fine with their parents.

Scott was on a youth hockey team, but an overbearing coach who asked the 5-year-old why he couldn't play like Stan was a big reason why Scott quit.

Jill remembered Scott cried when telling Stan: “I don't want to play hockey. I really don't want to play hockey.”

Stan's response? “So don't play.”

However, there was one caveat: Scott had to finish out the season because the Mikitas believe you don't walk out on your teammates.

That lesson hit home in a big way for Scott, who has been acting in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway for 15 years.

“That story is formative in what I do now because theater is a hugely collaborative endeavor,” Scott said. “Nobody does it alone.

“Honestly, as much as you look at his career - as much as he had individual accolades - a lot of the way he structured his entire career was about team. I think it impacted my life a lot and it's been reflective in my career.”

Stan's involvement in the Special Olympics and his creation of the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired also helped Meg decide to become a teacher.

Meg, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds in an inclusion classroom in Boston, said her dad began taking her to the Special Olympics when she was 8 or 9.

“The way my dad interacted with all people was an example to me in that he interacted with them just like he interacted with me or anyone else,” Meg said. “When I decided to teach, I knew I wanted to focus on special education because at the time (1986) most kids were educated separately from their peers and I knew that it was not a good system.”

COURTESY OF MIKITA FAMILYJill and Stan Mikita on their wedding day in April, 1963. Members of the wedding party included, from left, Mike Ditka, Glenn Hall, Mickey Madigan, Bobby Hull, and Steve Seno.

Stan, a Czechoslovakian native who was raised by an aunt and uncle in Canada from the age of 8, knew what it was like to be teased and separated from his peers. He was unable to speak English and at first had no friends. It's a huge reason that, as an adult, he treated everyone the same regardless of race, gender, economic status or IQ. And it was a driving force behind the creation of his hockey school.

Stan told the Chicago Tribune's Bob Verdi in a 1976 interview: “When I first went to Canada, a Czech kid, I didn't know the language. I saw people gathering in groups and pointing at me and laughing at me and calling me names.

“I didn't know what they were saying. It was like I was deaf. So I can identify with these kids. I know what it was to be an outcast, to be pushed into a corner by the so-called normal people. All you have to do is show these kids that you care. It's all so simple, and yet it means so much to them.”

And it's why he brought Meg and the others along with him.

The fans

Going out to eat could be a sore spot for the family, especially for Meg, who became incensed that people would interrupt their family time.

“Stan, can we get your autograph?”

“Mr. Mikita! Do you have a second?”

“Hi Stan! I hope we're not bothering you.”

At around the age of 10, Meg finally snapped one day and told a fan: “Yeah, you're bothering us.”

Stan stood up, talked to the fan and then sat down and got right in his daughter's face, telling her: “You will never do that again.”

COURTESY OF MIKITA FAMILYStan on the ice with his children, from left, Chris, Jane, Meg, and Scott.

It took some time, but Stan eventually learned it was OK to put his family first.

Jane recalled a night out when her dad ordered everything on the menu to see if the fans would stick around for them to finish.

“And they did. They waited. It was like two hours.

“It was always family time first, but it was also embedded in our minds at home that if it wasn't for the fans that paid for the tickets, then we wouldn't have the clothes on our back or go to college.”

The new normal

The last 16 months have been hard on the Mikitas. Seeing Stan, now 76, in the state he is in hasn't gotten much easier, although Jill admits she has come to accept it.

“I wish it weren't this way,” Scott said. “He's still himself. He still has the same sense of humor. Honestly, he still gets irritated by the same things that used to irritate him. But he is himself ... and he's not.

“For the rest of us, it's a lesson in being with him the way he is now, and accepting him and loving him the way he is now.”

Doing that means entering Stan's world when they visit, which someone from the family does every day at the memory care center in which he lives. They still ask if he knows who they are and get a wide variety of answers, including calling Jill “June July” and correctly identifying Chris as “the youngest.”

Stan's social skills remain strong. For instance, it's still ladies first when walking through doors; he'll be blunt and comment with “Do you want the truth?” when asked if he likes a new haircut; he'll walk past a group of people, extend his hand and say, “Hi. Stan Mikita”; and he even recently adjusted Chris' golf grip.

Physically, Stan is still able to walk and maintain his balance.


Jill wishes she could have her husband of 53 years living at home but understands that the care he requires makes that impossible. He is able to visit Jane or Jill's house for a few hours at a time, and he was even out putting at a golf course with one of his grandsons tending the pin in late May.

Stan's illness has brought the family closer. And it's also exposed his grandchildren to dementia and other end-of-life issues.

“For the rest of their lives, it's laid out for them where they will be extremely comfortable with people who have challenges,” Jill said. “That's nine kids who can pass that on to their children, and it can keep going.”

Said Meg: “To me, that is like Dad teaching the next generation.”

At the end of the day, the one thing Jill, Meg, Scott, Jane and Chris are all grateful for is that Stan seems happy. Scott pointed out that it's not unusual for people dealing with dementia to become frightened or angry.

Because Stan has little memory of his life or the people in it, he seems content to live in the moment ... to live for the day he is given.


Behind Alzheimer's, Lewy Body dementia is the second-most common form of dementia, said Dr. Xabier Beristain, a Loyola Medicine neurologist.

Beristain said Stan's fearless style of play and his propensity for fighting early in his career likely did not increase the odds of the disease developing in his brain.

“It's true that head trauma has been linked to increased risk of dementia. (But) when it comes to Lewy Body disease, I don't think we have such good evidence in that regard.

“We know that some genes may actually play a role in developing this type of dementia.”

One thing is certain: However it happened, the Mikitas have banded together to work through this instead of wasting energy trying to figure out why.

“You can't control your emotions, but you can control your behavior based on your emotions,” Scott said. “So were we angry? Yes.

“But we decided to try and channel that into something more positive than into a bitter reaction to it. I think that's always the better choice.”

Certainly, for Stan Mikita, it's the best gift for Father's Day - and every day for the rest of his life.

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Images: Moments from Stan Mikita's family album

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