Good guy Stan Mikita died Tuesday at age 78.
The Hall of Fame center was surrounded by his family when he passed, and that’s a wonderful thing because family — whether his own flesh and blood or his Blackhawks teammates, with whom he played an astounding 22 years — was the center of his universe.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the Hawks’ glory days of the early 1960s on into the 1970s can recall Mikita, the firefly who stood only 5-9 and weighed about 165 pounds (does an early Patrick Kane come to mind?), and remember the way he flitted down the ice, helmet-free, the puck attached to his stick like a yo-yo to its string.
He set up teammates for goals, won face-offs and scored on his own in a fashion as graceful as it was focused. This was back in the day when smaller men often seemed to have the advantage over larger men simply because their skates were more like dancers’ slippers than metal entrapments.
It was also a time when the Hawks and ice hockey represented Chicago as the embodiment of hard work and sporting success. You have to remember that the Bulls didn’t exist until 1966; the Bears went into slumber after their 1963 NFL title; the Cubs had a nice season in 1969, then stunk; and the White Sox faded after their 1959 first-place finish in the American League.
The Hawks, even with no home games on TV, managed to capture the heart of this city at a time when winter and hockey and the old Chicago Stadium meant excitement on a transcendent scale.
And there in the middle was Mikita, with maybe the greatest and best sidekick ever — Hall of Fame winger Bobby ‘‘The Golden Jet’’ Hull — sharing the spotlight for years . Mikita, who, perhaps appropriately, had a far more pedestrian nickname — ‘‘Stosh’’— finished his career in 1980 as the Hawks’ all-time regular-season scoring leader with 1,467 points on 541 goals and 926 assists.
That success pretty much speaks for itself. As do the many awards he won, including two Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, the four leading scorer crowns (1964, 1965, 1967, 1967), and the pair of Lady Byng Trophies for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play. Those last two honors got to the essence of Mikita’s spirit, a man who could compete ferociously at the highest level and yet remain a decent, empathetic — yes, dignified — human being.
Mikita was all that. He likely learned the empathy part as a child who came to Canada from a small town in what was then Czechoslovakia, speaking no English, to live with — and take the last name of — his mother’s brother’s family. It might not be well-known, but Mikita’s given last name is Gvoth, not Mikita.
Would he have been the secret star of the 1992 hit movie ‘‘Wayne’s World’’ if he was Stanislav Gvoth? Yeah, probably. Because his good nature was always there, especially when he agreed to let writer and star Mike Myers make his movie coffee shop a place called ‘‘Stan Mikita’s Donuts,’’ with a huge, revolving replica of Mikita in his Hawks uniform on the roof. Mikita had some lines in the movie, but, sadly, they were cut.
Myers, nevertheless, a huge hockey fan from Toronto, was starstruck. ‘‘It was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Stan Mikita.’ That’s crazy,’’ he said later. ‘‘He’s just a hero. A great, hunky hero. He was gracious and lovely and fantastic.”
Mikita was charitable, too, starting a hockey school for deaf children and doing countless charitable appearances. Things became testy between him and the Hawks when old-school big-boss owner Bill Wirtz ran the team like some corner store from the 19th century. But things were smoothed over when Wirtz died and his innovative son Rocky took over in 2008.
Mikita had helped win that glorious 1961 Stanley Cup — the one that had to hold up until the Hawks finally won again in 2010. He was a key player when the Hawks lost in the Final four more times (1962, 1965, 1971, 1973), and always that big, round, unmistakable face meant cold steel on ice was comin’ at you.
Some hockey experts have said Mikita was the best player ever. I don’t know about that. To me, it’s impossible to make such a decision.
Some people say the best player ever was there on another shift — Hull, the man who teamed up with Stosh for 14 years. But it matters little how these ratings go.
Mikita was a superstar, a beautiful competitor and man. He brought Chicago great pleasure.
His statue in front of the United Center is there to inform those who never knew.