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NHL great Stan Mikita dies at 78

Stan Mikita stickhandles around Detroit’s Ted Lindsay in a 1965 game  at Chicago Stadium.
Stan Mikita stickhandles around Detroit’s Ted Lindsay in a 1965 game at Chicago Stadium.(AP file)

CHICAGO — When Stan Mikita got back together with the Chicago Blackhawks, it was clear how much the reconciliation meant to the Hall of Fame forward.

He became a team ambassador, and then got a bronze statue outside the United Center. He was a regular at home games, drawing loud cheers when he was shown on the video board, often with former teammate Bobby Hull right beside him.

“I was proud to wear the Indian head uniform for 22 years,’’ Mikita said when he was honored before a 2008 home game.

The Blackhawks lost one of the most revered figures in franchise history when Mikita died Tuesday. The former captain, who helped Chicago to the 1961 Stanley Cup title, was 78.

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Mikita’s family announced his death in a statement released by the team.

No further details were provided, but he had been in poor health after being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive disease that causes problems with thinking, movement, behavior, and mood.

“He was surrounded by his loving family whom he fiercely loved,’’ the family said in the statement.

Mikita spent his entire career with Chicago, beginning with his NHL debut in 1959 and running through his retirement after playing 17 games in the 1979-80 season. He is the Blackhawks’ career leader in assists (926), points (1,467), and games played (1,394), and is second to Hull with 541 goals.

Mikita remains the only NHL player in history to win the Art Ross (scoring champion), Hart (MVP), and Lady Byng (sportsmanship) trophies in the same season, and he accomplished the feat in consecutive years in 1967 and 1968. He became the first player to have his jersey retired by the Blackhawks in 1980, and was inducted into the hockey Hall of Fame three years later.

“Stan Mikita will be always remembered as a champion, an innovator and a master of the game,’’ team president John McDonough said. “He embodied the Chicago Blackhawks. His excellence is illustrated by the team records he still holds today.’’

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Mikita at an old-timers game during All-Star Weekend in 1998 in Vancouver.
Mikita at an old-timers game during All-Star Weekend in 1998 in Vancouver.(ward perrin/vancouver sun)

Mikita’s relationship with the Blackhawks deteriorated over time, but the franchise reached out to the former captain after longtime owner William Wirtz died in 2007 and his son, Rocky, took over. The return of Mikita and Hull was a key moment in the transformation of the Blackhawks from one of the NHL’s worst franchises to its current place among the best-run organizations in sports.

“There are no words to describe our sadness over Stan’s passing,’’ Rocky Wirtz said. “He meant so much to the Chicago Blackhawks, to the game of hockey, and to all of Chicago.’’

The 5-foot-9-inch Mikita was just 18 when he joined a mediocre Blackhawks franchise in 1959. He made his debut at home against mighty Montreal, and his first faceoff came against Jean Beliveau during his prime.

“I was still in a daze when I went out to take that faceoff against a legend like Beliveau, who was around 6 foot 5 and a towering presence on the ice,’’ Mikita wrote in his 2011 book, “Forever a Blackhawk.’’

“He had to outweigh me by 60 pounds. The faceoff was in Montreal’s end. I looked up at him from the circle and wound up staring at his belly button. That’s how tall he was. My knees were shaking. My head was spinning. Somehow I got my stick down and managed to get the puck to our point man. Don’t ask me who it was. I was too nervous to remember names.’’

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But Mikita showed steady improvement at the start of his career, helping Chicago develop into one of the most feared teams in the league. He had 8 goals and 18 assists in his first full season, and then helped the Blackhawks to their first NHL title in 23 years.

The 1960-61 team, coached by Rudy Pilous, went 29-24-17 in the regular season, finishing third in the NHL. Chicago then upset Beliveau and heavily favored Montreal, and beat Detroit in six games for the championship.

Mikita had 19 goals and 34 assists in the regular season, and then added six more goals and five assists in 12 playoff games.

Mikita and the Blackhawks played for the Stanley Cup again in 1962, but lost to Toronto in six games. They also lost in the finals in 1965, 1971, and 1973 despite continued postseason success for Mikita, who tops the franchise playoff lists for assists (91), points (150), and games (155).