The heroes you make when you are young are the best. They get you interested in an activity that you'll love throughout your life. It could be sports, music, politics, art, entertainment or whatever; you'll always remember fondly the ones you idolized when you were a child.
I first found hockey in 1961. I was eight years old and the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. I jumped on their bandwagon.
There are a few reasons that I loved hockey. The game itself is fast and exciting. Guys wearing skates, speeding along a rink, shooting a hard, round, frozen piece of rubber while running their opponents in the walls...what's not to love.
Plus, my dad liked hockey. He was far from a sports guy. The main reason he knew anything about sports is my brother and I were more than a little obsessed with it as kids. My dad got his sports knowledge through osmosis. For some reason though, hockey was his game. He liked it for the same reasons as I did. It gave us something in common and I was able to watch games on television and occasionally in person with him.
When I started obsessing over the Hawks, I needed to find a player to love. There was Bobby Hull. He was big, fast and strong. He could shoot the puck harder than anyone in the National Hockey League. He scored more goals than anyone, too. Yeah, I was a fan of his, but I was drawn to a different player.
Number 21. Stan Mikita was my man.
He was a little guy...not nearly as big as Hull. He didn't skate as fast or shoot the puck as hard as most of the stars in the game, but he was smooth. He made these passes that would remind you of a great point guard in basketball. Mikita made other players better. Plus, he had an edge to his game. He didn't mind mixing it up. He wasn't taking shit from anyone and most likely was starting it. How could you not like that guy's game?
Yeah, Stan Mikita was my hockey hero...and he would remain that way for close to two decades.
Mikita led the league in scoring four times. In two of those seasons, he was the leagues Most Valuable Player and also won the Lady Bing trophy for sportsmanship. The guy who spent a lot of his time in the penalty box changed his game. He was the only player in league history to win three awards in a season and he did it twice.
Stan was a hockey trendsetter. In 1968, a Minnesota North Star player, Bill Masterson died after falling and hitting his head on the ice. He wasn't wearing a helmet...not many players of the era did. It wasn't macho. Stan Mikita and his teammate Ken Wharram started wearing helmets. It let other players know it was okay to start wearing one. If Mikita, one of the biggest stars of the game could wear one, why shouldn't I? Helmets slowly caught on in the NHL and it was Mikita leading the way.
Then there were the curved sticks. The blades on hockey sticks were always straight. One day in practice, Mikita's hockey stick got caught in a door and bent. Instead of getting a new one, Stan started shooting with the curved blade. He noticed that the puck was moving more than usual. Mikita and Hull took advantage of this and started using the sticks in games. It caught on and soon curved sticks became the norm.
My final highlight with Stan was on February 27, 1977. He had been stuck on 499 career goals for a few games. I was there that night and with six minutes to go in the game, Mikita beat Vancouver goalie Cesare Maniago for his 500th goal. At the time, he was one of only eight players to reach that milestone. I was on my feet with the rest of the crowd cheering my hero.
His post hockey life was full and interesting. He was a golf pro and a businessman. He had a hockey school to bring the game to hearing impaired youths. Mikita also was involved in bringing the Special Olympics to Chicago. He had a cameo in the movie "Wayne's World." Remember "Stan Mikita's Donuts" in Aurora?
An interesting thing about having heroes as a youngster is as you get older, they do, too. They are no longer the athlete you remember. You watch them age and go through a lot of the same problems as the rest of us. It's a reminder that they are human and not super-human.
In 2015, Stan Mikita was diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease. It's a form of dementia. At first, it's easy to think it may be Parkinson's Disease because the early symptoms are similar. Lewy bodies in the brain are involved in both. But it's really closer to Alzheimer's. There's no cure. There's no drugs to stop the progression of the disease.
For the last three years, Stan Mikita didn't know he had been a Hall of Fame hockey player. He didn't know he was a Stanley Cup champion. Even worse, he didn't know his wife of more than fifty years, his children or grandchildren. As Jill Mikita said in 2015, "The Stan we knew is gone. Completely gone."
Stan Mikita died yesterday at age 78. While I'm saddened by his death, I'm glad that he's at peace and out of pain. Still, it's another piece of my youth that is gone. It's another reminder of mortality and that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. It seems to occur more often lately. Another circle of life thing.
Rest easy Stan. You deserve it. Thanks for the memories.