Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita dead at 78

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Stan Mikita is the Blackhawks franchise leader in games played (1,394), assists (926) and points (1,467). (Sun-Times file photo)

Stan Mikita’s legacy always has been more than the gaudy numbers he put up or the trophies he racked up, the No. 21 hanging from the United Center rafters or the statue out front. It was the way he carried himself, the way he treated teammates and strangers alike — like you mattered, like you were important, like you were family.

“You don’t feel the privilege to play for the Hawks if it’s not for people and players like Stan Mikita,” Jonathan Toews said in 2015. “Long after his playing days, he’s still a humble, down-to-earth person who takes the time to talk to everybody. He found ways to make other people feel good about themselves and feel special, and I think that says more about him than anything else. We all look up to him and what he accomplished in the game of hockey.”

He was arguably the greatest Blackhawks player of all time — the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, a two-time MVP, an eight-time All-Star, his grace on the ice only matched by his grace off of it, a Blackhawks ambassador in title and in deed.

Mikita died Tuesday at the age of 78. His family said he was “surrounded by his loving family whom he fiercely loved.” He had been diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia, which was revealed in 2015. It’s a cruel disease that robbed him of his memories, including the ones that are forever etched in the minds of so many Chicagoans and hockey fans around the world.

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“Stan is from the neck up, completely gone, and from the neck down, he is as strong as a horse,” his daughter, Jane Mikita Gneiser, said in April.

His statue stands alongside Bobby Hull’s outside of the United Center, his legacy untarnished and secure more than five decades after he hoisted his lone Stanley Cup in 1961.

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

Mikita, who escaped communist rule in his native Czechoslovakia as an 8-year-old by moving to Ontario with his aunt and uncle in 1948, spent all of his 22-year career with the Blackhawks. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (1,394), assists (926) and points (1,467). He’s second all-time in goals (541), and won the Stanley Cup in 1961. He won the league scoring title four times, and won back-to-back Hart (MVP) and Lady Byng (gentlemanly play) trophies in 1966-68. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983. His No. 21 was the first number to be retired by the Hawks.

He started his career as a chippy player and a frequent visitor to the penalty box, topping 100 penalty minutes in four of his first six seasons, but evolved into one of the game’s great sportsmen. He’s credited with inventing the curved stick blade, a bit of serendipity he stumbled upon after his stick was caught in the boards and bent. He also was one of the first players to wear a helmet. Late in his career, he founded a hockey school for hearing-impaired children that is still going strong 45 years later, having evolved into the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association.

He never left the Chicago area, marrying his wife, Jill, and raising four children — Meg, Scott, Jane and Christopher. Team historian Bob Verdi, who covered Mikita during his playing days for the Chicago Tribune, wrote that Mikita was “the least pretentious, most accommodating icon imaginable.” Nobody ever had a bad word to say about him, the rare legend who lived up to the billing in every way.

“Everybody that I see talks about my grandfather,” said his 13-year-old grandson, Billy Gneiser, in April. “They said, ‘Oh, I used to watch your grandfather, he was a great man off the ice, a great man on the ice.’ ”

But it was on the ice where Mikita made his mark. On multiple occasions, Hull called the 5-9, 169-pound Mikita “pound for pound” the greatest player ever. He played in five Stanley Cup finals, winning the Cup in his second full season, having just turned 21. He and Hull were the Toews and Patrick Kane of their era, a fact not lost on the duo as they watched the Hawks win the Cup for the first time in 49 seasons in 2010, then again in 2013.

“The fact that Jonathan Toews is the leader of this team at 22 and Patrick Kane being one of the goal scorers they depend on, it was very much the same kind of deal in ’61 when we won the Cup,” Hull said during the 2010 championship run. “Mikita was young and a future Hall of Famer at that age. I was 22 and I could skate all night. They had to rope me down to stop me.”

It was always Hull and Mikita. Never Mikita and Hull.

But it never bothered Mikita. Few things ever did.

“People love that slap shot,” Mikita once said. “I never publicly thought of myself as better than Bobby Hull. But deep down, I said, ‘I’m just as good as he is.’ ”

As it did for so many other Hawks icons, things broke badly with management after his career. But after many years of being ignored by the team he helped raise to new heights, Mikita was welcomed back into the fold by owner Rocky Wirtz, president John McDonough and coach Denis Savard following Bill Wirtz’s death in 2007.

“Some of the millions of coaches they had would ask me if I’d come down and say ‘hi’ to the guys, but then I’d come down and things would be kind of cool,” Mikita said in 2008. “I’m not sure where that was coming from, but basically we were not wanted. Then to get a call from John McDonough asking me to come back and be part of the Blackhawks, I almost cried.”

The statues for Mikita and Hull were unveiled in 2011, a fitting permanent reminder of their grand legacy.

“I don’t know how to explain the euphoria,” Mikita said about his statue. “It’s just a grand gesture. . . . It will take 100 years to take the smile off my face.”

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