His legs are a little bowed. His toes are cramped from wearing tight skates. By the standards of modern sport, he is—at 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds—approximately two-thirds of an athlete. But Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks was indubitably the superstar of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, even though his team lost to Toronto, four games to two. As tough as a parboiled puck, Mikita set a new playoff point-scoring record of 21 (on six goals and 15 assists). More subtly and more significantly, Mikita was the playmaker or the scorer on the first goal play in seven of the Hawks' 12 playoff games—and in the 1962 playoffs, the team that scored first won 83% of the time. Says New York Goalie Gump Worsley: "Mikita, he'll always make the big plays that'll kill you."
At 21, Czech-born Center Mikita is a candid, durable bachelor who asks and gives no quarter. He didn't miss a game last year, though he played much of the season with two toes broken ("Once I took off my skates between periods and they were filled with blood") and for two and a half months with painful boils over his legs, back and groin. Not as burly as Montreal's big Center Jean Beliveau, not as fast as Montreal's little Center Henri Richard, Mikita brilliantly compensates with terror, wit and perception. "A lot of guys can skate well," says Glenn Hall, the goalkeeper of the Black Hawks, "but they can't think well while they're doing it." Mikita not only thinks well but well ahead. "He anticipates more than most other centers," says Coach Rudy Pilous of the Hawks. "He plans every move three jumps ahead, like a good pool player."
Sipping a Coke before a steak dinner one day last week, Mikita traced a simple cerebration against the veteran Toronto Maple Leaf defensemen, Allan Stanley, now 36, and Tim Horton, 32. "1 know that Stanley is a lot older than Horton," says Mikita, "and can't turn quite as fast while he's going backwards. So if I give him a burst of speed to one side and then switch over to his other side"—Mikita is expert at that celebrated calisthenic, the double shuffle—"I might get just a little break at going by him." His eyes, barely more than slits in the neat Slavic planes of his face, narrowed thoughtfully as he considered the problem of then beating Toronto Goalie Johnny Bower. "He'll throw his stick out at you more than Jacques Plante of the Canadiens," says Mikita. "So when 1 come in on him, I'm figuring to get him to throw his stick out on a fake. Maybe I'll lift my stick up and out to stop the puck. Then I slap my stick down to the ice and snap the puck past him." He recalled such a maneuver in the Hawks' first playoff game against the Maple Leafs. "It was a perfect play—until I shot," he said, shrugging helplessly. "He just didn't lift his stick when I thought he would."
Against Toronto, Mikita was the able centerpiece in a shift in Black Hawk strategy that came off as smoothly as velvet drawn over steel. In the Stanley Cup semifinal, the Montreal Canadien defensemen tended to play back close to the nets, opening up the ice in front of them for playmaking by the Hawks. So Mikita maneuvered with drop-pass plays near the blue line, sacrificing strict control of the puck in an effort to feint defensemen out of position by quick shifts that would open up a shot on goal. But in the Stanley Cup finals, Toronto's defensemen played out closer to the blue line, opening up the area behind them for maneuver and playmaking—if the Hawks could reach it. So Mikita abandoned the cute drop-pass technique in favor of more eruptive hockey: he would control the puck as long as he could, hoping that one of his wings could crash through the outer shell of the Toronto defense. The problem: "Toronto plays 'clutch, grab and hold' hockey," he says. "Montreal hits as hard as they do but you can roll off the Montreal checks. You can't roll off those Toronto checks because they've got a grip on you all the time. It's the hardest thing in hockey—starting and stopping all the time. Takes a lot of steam out of a team."
April 29, 1962
Mikita executed this strategy around his own basic philosophy of a center-man's function. "I'm a great believer in this: the center should handle the puck going over the blue line. I'm the type that likes to carry it across the blue line and mess around with it until some other guy gets into position for a shot." His gift is that he can control the puck under the most inclement conditions, i.e., one dense with the butt ends of hostile sticks. "He won't pass the puck if a man isn't clear," says Worsley. "He won't give the puck away to a guy that's half-covered just to get rid of it." And because he can shift effortlessly in either direction—not favoring, as do most centers, one side or the other—he can fake as naturally as blinking to split the defense wide open. "Stan will give you a couple of hi-hos-and-here-we-go and suddenly he's in on you with the puck," says Glenn Hall, who has to deal with him in Hawk practices. Mikita's best shot is the wrist shot. This season it helped him score 25 goals, which, with his 52 assists, give him a total of 77 points, for a third-place tic in the NHL, with Gordie Howe of Detroit. One reason for his deadliness with the wrist shot: he does as many as 40 pushups at a time—some 50 to 100 a day—to build his arms and wrists. "His forearms are so big," says Goalie Hall, "that his wristwatch would slide off the normal man's biceps." More than that, Mikita enjoys the simple exhilaration of combat.
"He isn't worried about getting cut up," says Hall. Worsley echoes: "He can take the rough stuff a little longer than most other centers. The more you hit him, the harder he comes back."
Mikita's fondness for a fight as well as a frolic seemed to retard him in his first two years in the NHL. He served 119 minutes in the penalty box in 1959-60, his freshman year in the big league, and another 100 minutes in his second year. The reason: he felt other players in the league were muscularly overwrought by the preposterous publicity the Black Hawks built around him. "They felt, 'Well, we'll have to straighten this guy out before he gets too far,' " says Mikita. "And 1 felt, 'I'm not going to last in this league if I let those guys come at me.'' So he traded butt end for butt end and spear for spear and picked up a lot of penalties for his pains. Eventually he earned such high respect throughout the league that not even the most frenetic publicity could tarnish it. And in the middle of the 1960-61 season he began controlling his temper. The first time he really tried, he got 10 goals in eight games—two more than he'd hit in his entire freshman season—and achieved a sudden appreciation of the rewards of restraint. This season he spent 97 minutes in the penalty box.
"Foreigner" except on the playing field
In a sense, Mikita's entire life has been a battle for respect. He was born Stanislaus Guoth on May 20,1940 in a Czechoslovakian village.
In 1948, three years after the war ended and with the Communists now in power, the Guoths were visited at Christmastime by Stan's uncle and aunt—Joe and Anna Mikita, who had been living in Canada for 20 years. The talk turned to whether the Mikitas might take Stan home with them, and in one of those tortured personal decisions that often occur in the backwash of war, the Guoths decided to send the child on to a new and, they hoped, better life. "I promised I wouldn't cry," says Stan. "But when we went to the station, I wrapped my arms around a pole and wouldn't let go. And when we got on the train, I plotted how I'd throw myself off it."
In St. Catharines, Ontario, Stan began to learn what it meant to be an "outsider." In school his classmates jeered endlessly because he was different. "The first word that I ever learned in English was 'foreigner,' " he says, "because that's all they ever called me."
The analgesic element was sport. When the soccer season began—"and that's what I'd been brought up on"—Stan scored five or 10 goals a game. "The hero of the school," he says dryly. The next autumn he took up hockey—and soon it became less a sport than an act of faith. He'd get up at 5 in the morning to practice for two hours before school, play for the school team after classes, play on Saturday afternoon, practice after the "grown-up" games on Saturday night until 2:30 or 3 o'clock in the morning, then be up at 8 o'clock to skip Sunday school and go out and practice some more. "I was always playing with boys who were older and bigger than I was," he says. At 9, he lied about his age to play in a league for 14-year-olds. At 13, he was signed for amateur hockey by Rudy Pilous, a resident of St. Catharines and then a farm system coach for the Black Hawks. (That committed the Hawks to paying for his schoolbooks. Now the Hawks like to claim that they "financed" his education.)
When he was 16 and playing with the St. Catharines Tee Pees, a Chicago farm team, Mikita was elected the most valuable player in the Ontario Hockey Association. But he gave no serious thought about hockey as a career until one of his teammates, Bobby Hull, was summoned up to the Hawks at 18. "Then I began thinking, 'Maybe with luck I'll make it at 22 or 23.' " When he was 19, he joined Hull as a member of the Black Hawks.
In the last two seasons, the Hawks have been using Mikita and his Scooter Line in quaint counterpoint to the muscle-busting vigor of the Bobby Hull-Bill Hay-Murray Balfour line. At 165 pounds, the Scooter Line is, on the average, 30 pounds lighter than the muscle-busters. So when rival teams try to check the Hull-Hay-Balfour line with their burliest policemen, Pilous tends to counter with the faster-skating Scooter Line. Mikita plays the Scooter like Van Cliburn plays Tchaikovsky. He likes swift Right Wing Ken Wharram to use the ice behind him to get up speed to burst past the defense, "coming up behind me on the right as I cross the blue line." He likes to have Left Wing Ab McDonald abreast of him at the same moment. "He's got a couple of shifts other guys don't have," says Mikita. If Mikita can't split the defense with his fakery and stickhandling, then he'll frequently draw it to the left to give Wharram a chance to skim through on the right. He's always watching other lines for tricks and tactics. This season he came up with a fake shot followed up with a pass behind his back to McDonald—something he picked up by watching Gordie Howe of Detroit.
"I'm not bright enough to figure these things out for myself," he says, "so I have to copy what the others are doing." It was a self-demurrer that only the cerebrally secure can afford.