Stan Mikita, who led Blackhawks to 1961 Stanley Cup title, dies at 78

Mr. Mikita shielded the puck from the Detroit Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay.
Associated Press/file 1965
Mr. Mikita shielded the puck from the Detroit Red Wings’ Ted Lindsay.

NEW YORK — Stan Mikita, the Chicago Blackhawks’ undersized but smooth-skating and feisty center who teamed with his fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Hull in the 1960s in reviving a long-floundering franchise while popularizing the curved hockey sticks that changed the game, died on Tuesday. He was 78.

The family announced his death through the Blackhawks organization. No other details were given. Mr. Mikita’s family announced in January 2015 that he was believed to have the progressive brain disease Lewy body dementia.

Although he grew up in Canada, Mr. Mikita was a native of Czechoslovakia — the first to play in the NHL. He spent his entire 22-season career with the Blackhawks and set still-standing team records for career assists, points, and games played. His 541 goals are second in the team’s history, behind Hull.


A nine-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.

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“Pound for pound, Stan Mikita was one of the greatest players of all time,” Hull was quoted as saying in “Heart of the Blackhawks” (2013), a biography of Chicago’s Hall of Fame defenseman Pierre Pilote.

Mr. Mikita captured the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point scorer four times. He won it for a third time, along with the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for gentlemanly play, in 1967, an unprecedented sweep. He won all three awards again in 1968.

The Blackhawks won the 1961 Stanley Cup, their first championship in 23 seasons, behind Mr. Mikita, along with Hull and his blistering slap shots on left wing and the brilliant goalie Glenn Hall.

Mr. Mikita’s accidental discovery of how a curved stick could get off high-velocity shots with unpredictable movement ushered in a new age of offensive-minded hockey.


During a practice in the mid-1960s, as he told it, he accidentally bent the blade of his stick. He continued to use it that day and found that his shots were diving and had greater velocity than sticks with the customary straight blades. He began fashioning a curve on all his blades with a heating process, and Hull did the same.

The New York Rangers’ Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate said he had used a slightly curved stick before Mr. Mikita made his discovery, but Mr. Mikita, and to an extent Hull, have been credited with turning straight blades into a relic.

Stan Mikita was born Stanislav Gvoth in Sokolice, a village in what is now Slovakia.

Just before Christmas 1948, an aunt and uncle, Joe and Anna Mikita, who had immigrated to St. Catharines, Ontario, were visiting his family.

With the Soviet Union dominant over Czechoslovakia, Stanislav’s father, Juraj, a maintenance man in a textile mill, and his mother, Emilia, who worked the family vegetable patch, decided to have their 8-year-old son return with the Mikitas to Canada, where they thought he would have a brighter future.


The Mikitas, who were childless, adopted the boy, and he took their surname.

Young Stan became a whiz in bantam and then junior hockey and joined the Blackhawks in 1958 at age 18.

He was just 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds and worried he would be overmatched in the rugged original six-team NHL, when skaters went without helmets.

“They handed me a uniform that was three or four sizes too big,” he told the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Seeking to show that he could not be pushed around, he developed an ornery streak.

“I couldn’t accept the fact that the other guys were bigger than me and could beat me up,” he told The New York Times in 1969. “So I learned to do things. Maybe I tripped them.”

But after a couple of seasons, he realized he was taking foolish penalties. He tamed his game enough to be a two-time Lady Byng winner, and he concentrated on skating, puck handling, passing, scoring, and winning faceoffs.

He scored a playoff-leading six goals when the Blackhawks eliminated the defending five-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the 1961 playoffs, then defeated the Detroit Red Wings to capture the Stanley Cup.

Mr. Mikita received the Lester Patrick Award for contributions to hockey in the United States in 1976. He retired after the 1979-80 season with 926 assists to go with his 541 goals in 1,394 games.

He later worked as a golf pro at a course in Illinois and founded a hockey school for the hearing-impaired.

Mr. Mikita’s survivors include his wife, Jill; their daughters, Meg and Jane; their sons, Scott and Christopher.

The Blackhawks retired his No. 21 in 1980 and later designated him a team ambassador, a community relations post. In 2011, they unveiled statues of Mr. Mikita and Hull outside the United Center, where they play.

In recalling how he set the stage for the use of curved blades, Mr. Mikita said that he and Hull had tormented Hall, the Blackhawks’ star goalie, when they first experimented with them at a practice.

“Bobby had a 100-mile-per-hour slap slot, and then he could make it rise,” Mr. Mikita told the Newhouse News Service in 2007. “I was able to make mine knuckle and drop about a foot.”

Hall supposedly became so frustrated that he bolted.

“He went to the showers,” Mr. Mikita said, “got dressed, and said he was never coming back.”