I had known it was coming since the most recent day the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup championship, i.e., June 15, 2015, but today's news of Stan Mikita's death still came as a shock to me as a Blackhawk supporter.
Some of my favorite memories of growing up are of watching Stan late in his 22-year career with "my" team. Maybe part of today's shock was from growing up with the feeling that he had "always" been part of the team, because I can't remember a time he wasn't.
Well, he will be a part of the team always. Here's part of why:
In hockey, the "Triple Crown" of winning the scoring title (the Art Ross Trophy), the Most Valuable Player (the Hart Trophy) and Most Gentlemanly Player (the Lady Byng Trophy) in the same season has happened only twice, ever, in the history of the National Hockey League.
Stan Mikita did it both times, winning all three trophies in 1967 and 1968.
That's before I started being aware of games, but I did get to see Mikita play. Throughout his long final illness, I thought of the image of him in a game my father and I attended in 1979 at Chicago Stadium. The Chicago Blackhawks played the Detroit Red Wings and lost -- and I discovered that I enjoyed the day anyway.
But the image that stays with me most from that game is of Stan Mikita, somewhat lower than average size and weight for a hockey player, carrying Detroit's Willi Huber on his back when Huber tried to stop him.
Huber was about six-foot-everything tall -- much bigger than Mikita -- but I still remember how that never stopped Mikita. Stan kept skating, with Huber draped all over him, from center ice into the Blackhawk zone on the far side from where Dad and I were sitting.
Huber didn't let go, so Mikita propelled the two of them behind Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito's net and into the corner of the ice near where Dad and I were sitting.
Now, the ethic in hockey at the time was that the goaltender didn't leave his net except in cases of emergency. But by the time Huber and Mikita reacher the corner of the ice near us, all five of the other 'Hawk skaters on the ice -- including Esposito -- were there to gather around the two of them and let Huber know, in no uncertain terms, that such treatment of Mikita was not going to be tolerated.
During his illness, I respected the Mikita family for guarding their privacy so well. When I thought of Stan, as I often did, I thought of him battling the illness just as he battled Willi Huber so long ago -- carrying a huge burden on his back, but not stopping.
He, and the family, can lay that burden down now. May others gather around the Mikita family to defend them as his teammates defended Stan.
Peace be with his family, friends, teammates and supporters.
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