Rozner: Stan Mikita was just as good as they come

 
 
Updated 8/8/2018 11:52 AM
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  • Blackhawk great Stan Mikita shows off his Stanley Cup ring to fans while walking the red carpet prior to Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings.

    Blackhawk great Stan Mikita shows off his Stanley Cup ring to fans while walking the red carpet prior to Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer/file

And the hits just keep on coming.

Much like the days flying off the calendar, we continue to lose the stars of our youth.

One more painful than the next.

Stan Mikita died Tuesday at the age of 78, suffering from several different health issues over the past decade, the last of which was dementia.

You didn't have to know Mikita to like him, but if you did know him you probably loved him.

A sweet man who always brought a joke and a handshake to the party -- or the golf outing -- Stan was the man when the second half of '70s Blackhawks hockey was little more than Mikita on offense and Tony Esposito in net.

His remarkable career came to an unceremonious end when he played only 17 games in the 1979-80 season, and couldn't play in the postseason after Tiger Williams speared him in the ribs and put him out for the year.

When he retired after 22 years -- all with the Hawks -- he had played more games than all but three players in NHL history, more playoff games than all but four, had more regular season points than all but two -- Gordie Howe and Phil Esposito -- and more playoff points than anyone except Howe and Jean Beliveau.

When he became the eighth player to score 500 goals, it was in typical Mikita fashion, dancing through several players at age 36 in 1977 before undressing the goaltender.

One of the best two-way centers to put on a sweater, he had as good a pair of hands as anyone who ever played the game.

Early in his career he used his hands to fight as much as anyone, despite being highly skilled, and once he figured out he was hurting his team by sitting in the box, he became the only player in history to win the Triple Crown, taking home the Hart (MVP), Art Ross (scoring) and Lady Byng (gentlemanly conduct) trophies in the same year, and he won all three in consecutive years.

He was the first player to have his number retired by the Hawks.

My relationship with Stan went from fan to friend when he allowed me at age 15 to interview him for 20 minutes after practice one day about his journey as a child, as a "displaced person," from Czechoslovakia to Canada -- where he was adopted by an aunt and uncle -- and his work with the hearing-impaired.

From there, he regularly supplied me with sticks after practice, which I foolishly used in games, saving only one that I still have in mint condition.

Stan Mikita, with Barry Rozner in 2013
Stan Mikita, with Barry Rozner in 2013 -

Over the years, I was fortunate to play golf with him, laugh with him and watch hockey with him. The last lengthy conversation I had with him was during Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, when he revealed that his hands hurt too much to play golf anymore.

But his spirits were good and he was happy to be back with the Hawks as an ambassador, enjoying life even without his beloved 7-iron.

Still, it's just too difficult to pick a favorite Stan Mikita memory.

And it's perhaps the greatest testament that you've lived an amazing life when so many people have so much good to say about a single human.

He was always nice and always the life of the party, bringing corny jokes to every imaginable situation, and it hurts to think that the last few years of his life were lived on this planet without his customary wit, without any knowledge of who he was or what he had accomplished.

I asked him once how he wanted to be remembered and he said it wasn't for him to decide, but I know he was very proud of his children and grateful that he had been given the time in life to devote so much to AHIHA, the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.

We have lost another great one, another man who gave so much of himself both in sport and in society, another man we were able to learn so much from and enjoy so often.

Stan would want us to celebrate his life and remember the good times, but if it's OK with you, Stan, I intend to feel bad about this for a while.

Godspeed, my friend, and hit 'em straight.

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