Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita dies at age 78

Stan Mikita, the legendary Chicago Blackhawks forward who scored more points than any player in franchise history, died Tuesday at 78 surrounded by his family.

For more than three years, Mikita suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that affects memory, sleep and behavioral symptoms. He lived in the memory floor unit at an assisted living facility in Chicago's western suburbs.

Services are pending, and the family respectfully asked for “privacy at this time.”

A Hall of Fame career that spanned from 1958-80 saw Mikita pile up 541 goals, 926 assists and 1,394 points — numbers that all rank in the top 31 in NHL history. He played every one of his games with the Blackhawks and won his only Stanley Cup in 1961.

The numbers, though, only tell a small part of his story.

What he did for the sport is legendary and will never be duplicated. His dedication to family and friends was amazing, and his dedication to Blackhawks fans everywhere should be an inspiration for any player donning the Indian Head sweater today, tomorrow and decades to come.

“There are no words to describe our sadness over Stan's passing,” said Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz in a statement. “He meant so much to the Chicago Blackhawks, to the game of hockey, and to all of Chicago.

“He left an imprint that will forever be etched in the hearts of fans — past, present and future. Stan made everyone he touched a better person. My wife Marilyn and I, joined by the entire Wirtz family, extend our prayers and thoughts to Jill and the Mikita family.

“ ‘Stosh' will be deeply missed, but never, ever forgotten.”

Early life

Born Stanislav Gvoth on May 20, 1940, Mikita was adopted by his aunt and uncle in 1948 and moved to St. Catharines, Ontario.

The unlikely move came about when his Aunt Anna and Uncle Joe — who were unable to have children — visited Stan and his parents in Sokolce, Czechoslovakia. During their visit, Anna and Joe tried to convince Stan's parents that their son could thrive in Canada and be better off with them.

“I was in bed in the other room, and I was hungry, so I asked for a piece of bread and jam,” Mikita told Charles Wilkins for a book released in 2000 called “When the Final Buzzer Sounds.”

“My mother wouldn't give it to me, and I started to cry. They thought I was crying because I'd overheard her saying that she wouldn't let me go to Canada. So she told my uncle, ‘OK, Joe, he can go.'

“That was that. As far as I knew I was just going for a visit.”

But that wasn't the case, and Mikita struggled mightily at first. He was made fun of for the way he spoke and was ostracized until he got involved in sports. Mikita didn't see his parents again until he completed his first season with the Blackhawks.

“They asked if I was angry at them for giving me up,” Mikita said in the book. “I let them know right there that I couldn't thank them enough for having allowed me to go.”

His only title

Mikita scored just 8 goals in his first full season with the Blackhawks, then collected 19 in 1960-61. It was during the spring of 1961 that Mikita helped lead the Hawks to the last Stanley Cup the franchise would win for 49 years.

Mikita, who notched 6 goals in the playoffs, scored the game-winner in Game 5 against Detroit, and the Hawks went on to claim the title by scoring 5 straight goals in a 5-1 victory in Game 6.

Mikita's Hawks probably should have won another Cup in 1971, but they squandered a 2-0 lead in Game 7 against Montreal. Jacques Lemaire cut the lead in half when he fired a shot from over 60 feet away that somehow got past Hawks goaltender Tony Esposito at 14:18 of the second period.

“The puck dove like a knuckleball and unfortunately Tony didn't see it dropping,” Mikita said in 2007. “I never blamed Tony for missing it because he put us in the Finals, like most good goaltenders do.”

Henri Richard scored the next 2 goals (late in the second period and early in the third), and shellshocked the Hawks as well as all of Chicago.

Hockey innovator

One day at practice, Mikita's stick blade got caught in the doorway where the players come on and off the ice. When he pulled it out, he saw an ‘L' shape instead of the straight blade players used at that time.

“I got a little upset because now I had to go all the way downstairs to get another stick, and I didn't really want to do that,” Mikita told reporter Sarah Spain in 2011.

“So I saw a puck lying there and I slammed it against the boards in anger, and there was a different sound that I heard. … I shot a couple more with a wrist shot and it turned out to be the same thing, and finally the stick cracked.”

Pucks suddenly were flying in ways no one had seen before. Through trial and error, Mikita figured out that if he heated up the stick and bent it just the right way, it would stay that way.

Soon players were using them all over the league, and goaltenders were forced to use masks to protect themselves from pucks that were suddenly flying at their faces.

Mikita also was one of the first NHL players to don a helmet, and certainly the most famous one at the time.

“The most important part of our body — our head — we didn't have much protection,” Mikita said in the interview with Spain. “So I got together with an engineer with Ridell Co., which makes the football helmets, and we came up with one with the suspension in it that football players used to use.

“Then we got into the rubber foam (inside) afterward. It saved me an awful lot of headaches.”

Tough son of a gun

Early in his career, the 160-pound Mikita would obliterate any opponent in his path. He adopted this style of play largely because of a conversation he had with teammate Ted Lindsay, who was similar in size to Mikita.

“I hit them before they hit me,” Lindsay told Mikita. “If you do that, you've got the element of surprise on your side.”

The talented Mikita, who routinely racked up 30-goal, 80-point seasons, quickly gained a reputation as a hard-hitting player who often crossed the line. In 1964-65, Mikita led the NHL with 59 assists and 87 points, but he also spent a career-high 154 minutes in the penalty box.

Hall of Fame defenseman Bill Gadsby called Mikita “a miserable little pain in the butt” in “When the Final Buzzer Sounds.” “I remember hitting him hard during the playoffs one year and telling him, ‘Boy, one of these times you're not going to get up.'

“And he said, ‘Ah, get lost, you old man, that was no body check at all.' I'd hit him some nights and he'd have to crawl to the bench. But he'd always be back for the next shift. He had a lot of guts.”

The cheap shots, the crushing blows, the needless hooking penalties — they all but came to an end in 1966 when young daughter Meg asked Stan why he spent so much time sitting alone.

According to Stan in a 2010 interview, here is what Meg told him after he got home: “You were so great out there. Except there was one time when that guy in the striped shirt — the guy with the whistle — he blew the whistle and he pointed for you go to that way, and in the meantime Uncle Bobby and Uncle Kenny and Uncle Ab were all going to sit with their friends. And you had to go sit all the way across that ice by yourself. Why do you do that?”

So Mikita changed how he played and in 1965-66 he finished with just 58 penalty minutes. The next season he had just 12 and won the league MVP (Hart Trophy), was the league's leading scorer (Art Ross Trophy) and won the sportsmanship award (Lady Byng Trophy).

He's the only player to claim all three trophies in one season — and he did it again in 1967-68.

Meg has always marveled at how her dad could quit things that weren't good for him.

“He quit smoking,” Meg said in 2016. “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.”

Post career

Mikita retired during the 1979-80 season and soon became the head pro at Kemper Lakes Golf Course in Long Grove. He worked there until the summer of 1986, but those six years were anything but blissful for the Mikita family.

“When he was a golf pro, he got to the point where he was so edgy, so totally exhausted with the job, that we'd hear him come in, and we'd scatter,” said his wife, Jill, in Charles Wilkins' book. “We didn't want to talk with him, because as soon as he started talking, all his built-up anxiety spilled out on us.”

The long hours were bad enough, but Jill also said too many responsibilities were being heaped on Stan.

“The pressure on him was so intense that he was treating the golf course as if he owned it,” Jill said.

After Mikita resigned, he thought about opening a car dealership, but a conversation with former teammate Glen Skov led to his new career in the plastics business. He eventually formed Mikita Enterprises, which packages food for companies and is run by Jane and Chris, the Mikitas' two youngest children.

The diagnosis

Late in 2014 and early in 2015, Jill started seeing significant changes in Stan. He was forgetting simple things like where he'd placed his keys or how to get home from Medinah Country Club.

The Mikitas knew Stan was in trouble, so they had a CT scan performed, and on Jan. 30, 2015, they went public with the news that he was likely suffering from Lewy Body Dementia.

“It was very difficult for me in the beginning because I saw him disappear,” Jill said.

The Mikitas eventually found a place in the west suburbs that they were happy with, and that's where Stan lived out the rest of his life. He still was able to joke around, introduce himself as Stan Mikita, and even adjusted Chris' golf grip in the summer of 2016.

It was a difficult time for the Mikitas, but it made an already close family that much closer.

“It really has become a lesson in a couple of things,” Scott said in a Daily Herald Father's Day report in 2016. “One — living in the moment. Being where you are when you are. And two — accepting. It's been a surrender and an acceptance of what is.

“I wish it weren't this way. 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.

“But 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.”

Immortality in the rafters

Stan Mikita never took playing for the Hawks for granted and always gave the franchise everything he had. Certainly one of his proudest moments came when ownership decided to hang No. 21 from the rafters.

“I just thank the Blackhawks for giving me a chance to be able to prove a few things that I had to prove,” Mikita once said. “First of all that a kid can come from a faraway world and be able to do certain things and enjoy doing those things.

“By looking up there it's a thank you to me from them I think.”

A thank you that Jill, Scott, Meg, Jane, Chris and all the Mikitas to come will always be proud of.

• Follow John's Hawks reports on Twitter @johndietzdh.

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