On the day that Stan Mikita has died, I'm re-posting this in memory of my favorite Blackhawk.
As I sat on a late spring morning in 2015, with my Blackhawks cap on wishing the work day would end quickly so I could gather my wife and head somewhere to watch Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, I opened the Chicago Tribune to the sports article, “For Stan Mikita, all the Blackhawks Memories are Gone.” I wish I could call and tell him, “Don’t worry Stan, I remember.” Blackhawks fans remember.
Blackhawks fans are often reminded of the team’s history. Just go to a game and watch the video scoreboard before the game starts and you’ll be treated to clips of historic moments and the players of earlier eras. Go to the gift shop in the United Center and check out the jerseys with the names on the back – Hull, Mikita, Esposito, Savard, Wilson, Roenick, Amonte – and check out all of the “Original 6” gear commemorating the fact that the Blackhawks are one of the original six National Hockey League teams.
This is a franchise with true history and an ownership team that doesn’t overdo that history, but treats it with respect and reverence in a way that makes sense.
Some of us are lucky, and in many cases, unlucky enough to have experienced some of that history that didn’t include year after year of challenging for the NHL holy grail. For those fans who have recently picked up on this team, welcome and thanks for getting on board. And for those of us who have been around longer and seen more, well, there’s truly a bit of sadness mixed in with today’s anticipation.
As a kid, I was indeed lucky enough to have been introduced to Blackhawks hockey by my father and uncle who had season tickets and who fairly regularly took a young sports fan to the old Chicago Stadium. There, I first experienced the original Madhouse on Madison, full of cigarette smoke and the smell of beer and urine. But, more importantly, the phlegmy cheers of fans exploding at a Bobby Hull slapshot or a Stan Mikita pirouette and goal.
I truly loved watching Stan Mikita move around the ice, making passes, checking opponents from behind on defense and dishing out the occasional butt end of his stick or a deceptive slash to the shins.
Today’s Tribune article, by Chris Kuc, in a marvelously written, tear evoking way, tells the story of Mikita’s recent descent into a life of no memory.
“Stan Mikita has been diagnosed with suspected dementia with Lewy body, a brain disorder that can strip those with it of memory, cause hallucinations, sleep disorders and often, though not in Mikita's case, Parkinson's disease. His decline has been steep and sudden.”
According to Mikita’s wife Jill, “His mind is completely gone.”
I didn’t want to be sad today. As a fan of all Chicago sports teams, but with the Blackhawks at the top of the list, I was overjoyed on Saturday night as I watched the team move one game closer to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Immediately after the game, I told my wife to get a baby sitter for the three year old so we could go out on Monday night and, fingers-crossed, celebrate a win.
Sadly enough though, this morning I find myself remembering February 27, 1977, when a buddy and I went to the Chicago Stadium to see the Blackhawks play the Vancouver Canucks and I saw Stan Mikita score his 500th career goal. It was the only time I have ever sat in the first row, on the glass, of a Blackhawks game. When the puck went in the net, I don’t think I had ever heard a roar of people as loud and as reverent before or since.
That night, Mikita became only the 9th player in NHL history to score 500 goals. He would go on to score 41 more goals in his career.
Mikita also racked up 926 assists in his career to bring his points total to 1,467. Regarded as one of the best centers of his time, Mikita led the league in scoring four times, won two MVP awards, appeared in nine all star games, and had his name etched on Lord Stanley's Cup once. Mikita was inducted into Hockey's Hall of Fame in 1983.
As all Blackhawks fans readied themselves for a celebration, I felt it would be an appropriate idea to just take a moment to pay a mental tribute to the best center the team has seen until Jonathan Toews.
While his statistics and career speak for themselves, Stan Mikita no longer can. As his wife Jill told the Tribune reporter, "The Stan we knew is gone, completely gone."
He’s gone in one sense Jill, but not in all senses. Our memory – the memory of Blackhawks fans everywhere has made Stan Mikita a name and a career that will always be present.
So, if you’re at the game tonight, or even watching on television, maybe you can look up into the United Center rafters and give the number 21 banner hanging there a little nod, as if to say, “We’ve got you Stan.” We remember.
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