Of all the wonderful nights he's had in front of Chicago hockey fans over the years, Stan Mikita will tell you that Dec. 16, 2009, was one of his favourites. It was an evening that, for almost 30 years, he never imagined happening.
When the Hockey Hall of Famer finished playing with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1980, the Blackhawks were finished with him. In the years that followed, Mikita suffered in silence as the organization he'd given his entire NHL career to turned its back on its long-time captain.
Worse, it turned its back on its fans too. Club owner Bill Wirtz's obsession with making a buck trumped putting competitive teams on the ice. Eventually, the organization became a league-wide joke. Celebrated alumni were shunned because making room for former players in the Blackhawks family meant having to spend some money.
That would change, thankfully, when Bill Wirtz died and his son, William (Rocky) Wirtz, took over and hired John McDonough as team president. Soon after, former 'Hawks players Mikita, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard and Tony Esposito were made "team ambassadors" and were urged to make their presence felt at the arena and in the community as much as possible.
On Dec. 16, 2009, Mikita was honoured before a capacity crowd, which gave him a raucous standing ovation as he walked to centre ice. It was a heart-warming welcome back.
"Those years hurt, there is no question," Mikita said yesterday Friday, sitting in a boardroom at the United Center. "But I kept it locked inside me. It was just uncalled for. When it looks like you're not wanted, you keep your mouth shut and don't throw wood on the fire.
"It's a shame it had to happen, but it's fortunate for all of us it ended up being fixed the way it was."
When Mikita entered the arena yesterday, he bumped into current 'Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. They chatted for a few minutes and you could sense a genuine warmth and understanding between the two.
Mikita, of course, was on the last Chicago team to win a Stanley Cup (1961, against the Detroit Red Wings). It was only his second year in the league. After his career wound up almost 20 years later, he still only had one title to show for it.
"It is kind of shocking," said Mikita, who still looks plenty athletic at 69.
"When I look back at some of the players we had here over the years, it is amazing. But then there were a lot given away who shouldn't have been. But after winning my first one, I'm thinking: 'If I stay healthy I should win a bunch.'"
When he thinks back to the 1960-61 Cup-winning team, the performance of one player stands out for Mikita above the rest: goaltender Glenn Hall. (So some things never change. Teams don't usually win the Stanley Cup without a lights-out performance by their netminder.)
He likes this year's version of the 'Hawks, but he doesn't talk about their chances of winning it all.
"Let's hope they play well and we'll see how it turns out," Mikita said. "All you can do is give your best and even that's not good enough sometimes. Lady Luck has a lot to do with it."
Mikita, meanwhile, is not one of those former players who sits around telling war stories from the good old days. Although he does tell a good yarn if he's encouraged.
One of his favourites is about the time he accidentally cut Gordie Howe during a game and then had the nerve to chide the Red Wings star about his age before a faceoff.
"You're too old to still be playing," Mikita told Howe, who was nearing 40 at the time. "I'll buy you a rocker you can sit in."
Howe didn't say a word.
Between periods, Ted Lindsay, Howe's long-time teammate who was now playing for the 'Hawks said: "Stanley, you shouldn't have said that. Gordie has a memory like an elephant. He doesn't forget anything."
Mikita went out for the third period expecting Howe to exact revenge. He did nothing. He didn't make a move on Mikita in their next five meetings.
In their sixth game, however, Mikita was cutting across centre ice when he was hit. He crumpled. He crawled on all fours to the bench - the Detroit bench. Finally, he got to his side and sat down beside backup goalie Denis DeJordy. Mikita was seeing stars.
"Stanley," DeJordy said. "Do you want to know the number of that truck that hit you?"
Mikita cursed at the goalie.
"Stanley," DeJordy continued. "I am the only one in this whole building that saw what happened."
The goalie then described how Howe put his right hockey glove under his arm seconds before meeting Mikita at centre ice. In a flash, Howe pulled his hand out, punched Mikita square on the jaw, and then returned it inside the glove without anyone noticing.
"How big a punch did he throw?" Mikita asked the goalie. "Did he wind up from his heels?"
DeJordy used his two index fingers to illustrate a distance of six inches.
A couple of games later, Howe approached Mikita and said he hoped he'd learned his lesson. Mikita had.
"After that, I always called him Mr. Howe."