Pat Stapleton first played against Stan Mikita when they were both 14-year-old bantams. A couple years later, they were junior-hockey teammates in St. Catharines and the pair spent seven seasons together on fantastically talented Chicago Black Hawks teams. All that exposure led Stapleton to one conclusion when recalling what Chicago’s all-time leader in games played and points was capable of on the ice.
“Stan was an artist,” Stapleton said. “He had instincts and anticipation second to none.”
Mikita, thought to be suffering from Lewy body dementia since 2015, passed away Tuesday at the age of 78.
Disease can be merciless and indiscriminate, but Mikita’s affliction had a lot to conquer. His hand-eye coordination dazzled whether he was holding a baseball bat, golf club or pool cue.
“Whatever you wanted to play,” said Stapleton. “I would say he was as good an athlete as I ever played with or against.”
Mikita could impress with most any piece of sports equipment, but his livelihood and legend were made by his skills with a hockey stick. Of course, his reputation was also enhanced by what he did to a hockey stick: If he wasn’t the actual inventor of the curved blade, he was certainly instrumental in popularizing it.
Standing five-foot-nine and weighing about 160 pounds, Mikita more than compensated for any size disadvantage with an I’ll-show-you spirit. Though not the strongest skater, he was often the person orchestrating the action, seeing the angles and making the plays, all the while spending his energy efficiently.
“He never confused activity with results,” says Stapleton. “Stan always had the puck. He was tremendous with the puck.
“He had I.Q. for the game. For that game and a lot of games.”
Intelligence, though, often bowed to emotion during the first chapter of Mikita’s career, when he made frequent trips to the penalty box. In 1966, his daughter, Meg, pointed this out in what became a crystalizing moment for the young father.
“She said, ‘Daddy, when that guy in the stripes blew the whistle, why did Uncle Bobby [Hull] go sit with his friends and you went all the way across the ice and sat by yourself?” Mikita told Sportsnet’s Dave Zarum in 2012. “And I almost cried, because as a six-year-old, she knew better than I did.”
The numbers would tell you Mikita completely altered his approach after that conversation. He went from posting 146 PIM in 1963–64 and 154 in 1964–65 to 12 in 1966–67 and 14 the year after. The 26 minutes combined he compiled during those latter two campaigns represented a lower total than he posted in all but one of his other 19 seasons.
The statistics are stark, but according to Stapleton, there was no appreciable change in style. Mikita — who probably veered into rat territory early on in his career — may have found a way to eliminate his yapping and general knuckleheaded behaviour, but it did not come at the expense of intensity. In fact, the springs of both 1967 and ’68 concluded with Mikita claiming the league scoring title, MVP honours and the Lady Byng Trophy for his sportsmanlike play. He’s the only player in NHL history with a 100-plus PIM season on his resumé and a Byng on his shelf.
“I never thought Stan ever changed that much,” Stapleton said. “He was always a competitive guy, he was always the lead dog.”
He also cared about helping others be their best. The late Keith Magnuson was fond of telling a story about getting a call from Mikita in the summer of 1970 to meet for lunch. Magnuson had just completed his rookie season with the Hawks, so getting an invite to socialize from Mikita was a big deal. When Magnuson and fellow youngster Cliff Koroll connected with Mikita that day, it wasn’t for a bite and a sudsy sip as they expected, but rather to help out at Soldier Field with the Special Olympics. Mikita, who also helped establish a hockey school for the hearing impaired, told Magnuson and Koroll that helping out was simply part of the job when you’re a Black Hawk.
“That’s what he did,” said Bob Verdi, the author who worked with Mikita on the 2011 book Forever a Blackhawk. “He was a giver.”
If Mikita had an affinity for the underdog, it’s likely because of the hurdles he was required to clear as a boy making a trans-Atlantic move. Born Stanislov Gvoth on May 20, 1940, in what is now Slovakia, Mikita emigrated to St. Catharines when he was eight years old to live with Anna and Joe Mikita, his aunt and uncle. He spoke no English and, at least initially, received some rough treatment from fellow kids who saw him as an outsider. The shoulder chip Mikita carried to the NHL was surely gouged, at least in part, by that difficult entry to a new life.
Almost 25 years after coming to Canada, the 1972 Summit Series took Mikita back behind the iron curtain. At 32 years old, Mikita was buried on the depth chart at centre and didn’t make an appearance in the eight-game set after the third contest in Winnipeg. While the enduring memory for all involved remains Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal, Mikita was in the middle of a moment that reinforced what opposite worlds the two squads came from.
After the eighth game versus the Soviets, the Canadians were slated to play an exhibition match in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Mikita — who had left Moscow early to spend some extra time with his mother, Emilia, sister, Viera, and brother, George — was re-inserted into the lineup and named Canada’s captain. When the national hero was introduced prior to puck drop, the arena exploded.
“It was an outstanding applause for a guy who, probably a lot of them, never saw play,” Stapleton said. “The reception that man got from the [Czech and Slovak] people; our guys still talk about it.”
They may also recall a more sombre scene when, following the game, Mikita had to once again say goodbye to his family, who were still stuck under Soviet rule.
“It wasn’t a happy moment for anybody,” Stapleton said.
Maybe not. But knowing what Mikita made of himself after that first trying departure surely soothed the pain for everyone.