There is a small basement bar in Montreal a couple of snow-covered alleyways up from the hotel where most of the visiting National Hockey League teams stay when they play the Canadiens. It is so dingy and obscure that you can't even find a sign telling its name—if it has one. No women are allowed there, no jukeboxes are heard and the hockey players can push a couple of iron tables together and enjoy their after-game pints of beer and ale free from the adulation of the city's bellicose autograph seekers. One night, not long ago, after a key game between the two top teams in the NHL, cab after cab pulled up to the little bar, disgorging players from Chicago until the entire Black Hawk team was inside, grouped around nine tables pushed together in the shape of the letter T. At the top of the T sat Bobby Hull, hockey's No. 1 star. Several stitches criss-crossed the bridge of his nose and, thanks to a double body check which threw him against the sideboards late in the game, he was forced to sit stiffly on the edge of his chair to relieve a severe ache in his back. Near Hull sat Doug Mohns, the balding former Boston defenseman turned Chicago forward, who was having trouble focusing his eyes because he was still woozy from taking seven stitches in his left ear. At the bottom of the T sat the smallest Hawk of all, Stan Mikita (see cover), wearing a tan ten-gallon Stetson. The players grew quiet as the late sports news came over the Canadian Broadcasting System. "The Chicago Black Hawks," said the commentator, "beat the Canadiens at the Forum tonight 4-2, to go three points up on Montreal in the league standings." "That," said Stan, lifting his glass in a toast to his teammates, "was the biggest game we have won in the last three years!"
If the toast had in it overtones of both satisfaction and bitterness, it was because Stan and the Hawks had too often in the past started off a season looking like sure winners only to fold when the championship was all but in their grasp. Twice in the last three seasons, the Hawks lost the title by a single point. Last year, after leading the league once again, they won only two of their final 12 games to finish a desultory third.
That crucial victory in Montreal made it plain that the Black Hawks have had their mangled ears scorched one time too many by the fans' shouts of "choke," "fold" and "collapse," and they are out to get the monkeys off their backs.
If they succeed, it will certainly be due in large part to the two top Hawks, Hull and Mikita, both of whom are striving not only for a team championship but for personal records—Hull in goals, Mikita in goals and assists. That night in Montreal was a big one for both of them. Mikita assisted Hull on the important first goal of the game to get the Hawks off to a good start. After that, he took charge of the puck in 34 of the 35 face-offs he was involved in to give the Hawks possession time and time again, particularly in the defensive zone. It was a pattern that has been repeated many times over in other Hawks' games.
To understand the current state of the NHL and Chicago's peculiar place in it, it is necessary to reflect briefly on the past. In the season of 1960-61, the Montreal Canadiens, after winning five consecutive Stanley Cups and three straight league championships, finally began to feel age nipping at their boots. That year the once invincible Canadiens were knocked out of the cup playoffs in the opening round by the Hawks. As newcomers like Mikita, Hull and Billy Hay joined their burly talents to those of such still young "veterans" as Ken Wharram, Pete Pilote, Moose Vasko, Eric Nesterenko and Goalie Glenn Hall, Chicago went on to win the cup.
The following year, although the Canadiens told lies to their legs for another grand last effort, the Hawks again pushed them out of the playoffs, primarily because of a record 21 points scored by Mikita in 12 games. Chicago lost that Stanley Cup in the finals, but the Montreal monopoly had ended, and today the Canadiens are just one of four good teams skating on NHL ponds. In the three seasons since then, those four teams have been as evenly matched as dice being spun around in a bird cage. Chicago and Detroit have each won 102 games, Montreal has won 100 and Toronto 98. (The Boston Bruins and New-York Rangers are not even allowed to get into the cage since by Halloween both are usually eliminated from serious contention.) Of the four, Chicago remains the most bewildering. During these last three seasons it has twice led the league in scoring, has given up the fewest goals, has placed twice as many players on the league's All-Star teams as any of the others and has won nine of the NHL's prized trophies for individual excellence compared to three for any of the other clubs. Yet it is the only one of the four that has failed to win a championship. Because of all this, the Hawks have earned themselves an unenviable reputation as a "first-half hockey team," leading even their most ardent fans to modify expectations for the current season much as a guest might modify his appetite when approaching the table of a host known to serve excellent soup and fish followed invariably by a rotten roast.
This year the soup and fish in Chicago are better than ever: the Black Hawks have completed the best first-half season in their entire history. Hull is banking pucks at a rate that should easily enable him to break hockey's heretofore impenetrable scoring barrier, the 50-goal season, and Stan Mikita is shooting as well as ever, getting 19.3% of his shots-on-goal into the net. From now until the middle of March, the Hawks will play 22 games of which 14 are at home. Of the eight road games, two are against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, where Chicago has lost only four of its last 24 appearances. Everything is right there in front of the Hawks now and they realize it. For the voodoo-ridden team of other years, that might spell trouble, but the situation seems to be different now.
"Hockey players often refuse to say how they feel about certain things," Mikita said recently. "But we have been burned enough. Wherever we go around the league we are accused of choking. There is a loudmouth who sits behind the bench in Boston and gives it to us all the time—accusing us of quitting when it counts. You can't hear him when you are out on the ice, but you hear him when you are on the bench and that's enough."
For years, Coach Punch Imlach's Toronto Maple Leafs have been known for coasting along through the regular season, letting the championship go so they can save their strength for the playoffs. The Black Hawks of 1965-66 have quite another attitude; they want that championship. "For those who don't understand hockey it may seem ridiculous to wear yourself out playing 70 games to win the league title and get only $2,250 when you might win the cup in eight games and get $3,500," explains Mikita. "But winning the title this year is now a matter of pride with us and hockey players exist on pride." This year the 5-foot-9 center, known to French-speaking fans as Le Petit Diable, is determined not only to win for the Hawks but to become the second man ever to lead the NHL in overall scoring for three straight years. The first and last player to do it was that ageless elf, Gordie Howe of the Red Wings, who must have sat down with Emil Waldteufel a century ago to help him write The Skaters waltz.
Like Gordie, Mikita is an all-round hockey player, but he is not as spectacular as Bobby Hull, nor is he equipped with Hull's brute strength. Hull's marvelous combination of speed, build, strength and looks forces Stan to play Gehrig to Bobby's Ruth, but Gehrig was a pretty fair ballplayer. Hull has out-scored Mikita in goals over the last four seasons by 40, yet Mikita has outscored Hull in total points by 25.
When Mikita takes over at center ice, he digs into the corners to free the puck and then skates effortlessly over the enemy's blue line with the puck out in front, drawing the defense toward him. Once the defense is committed to Stan's center position, a wingman on the right or left is wide open and Stan's lightning pass often sets up a shot on the net. Sometimes Mikita's turn lasts only a minute, but last year he assisted on 59 goals, a league record, and scored 28. Two seasons back he bagged 39 goals himself.
But it is Mikita's ability to win face-offs that sets him apart from most of the players in the league. Whenever the Hawks are in trouble and the face-off is in the defensive zone, Mikita will slide over the sideboards and go out to win the face-off, thus getting the Hawks out of danger.
Players as good and as small as Mikita are obvious targets for the bigger men in the league, and Mikita has a reputation as a "chippy" player—one who infuriates the opponent. Allan Stanley of Toronto sums him up this way: "Mikita may look like a small man, but there are no small men in the National Hockey League, at least no small men who aren't men. If you give Stan a little jab, he reacts immediately. Most players will wait for a chance to retaliate, but Mikita will give it right back to you in the same motion. And he can be ornery himself." Mikita has led NHL centers in penalties for six straight years.
More than 200 stitches have been embroidered into Stan's leathery features since he came into the NHL seven seasons ago. Before that he played a spectacular season with the St. Catharines Teepees in the Ontario Hockey Association, on the same line with Hull. His very first spin on big-league ice was against the Montreal Canadiens. He won the first face-off from Jean Beliveau, one of the great centers of all time, then got by that almost legendary defenseman, Doug Harvey. Young Stan was so thrilled at these exploits that he didn't see Tom Johnson coming in from the side to knock him right off his skates. "I remember my second game, too," he says. "It was in Boston and I went out and got the puck and started up the ice, and all I remember after that is crawling back to the bench on my hands and knees."
Stan Mikita was born Stanislav Gvoth in Soholce, Czechoslovakia on May 20, 1940. His father worked in a textile factory, his mother in the fields. When the Communists took over the country in 1948, the Gvoths decided that it would be best to send young Stanislav away, out of Czechoslovakia if possible. Mikita was 8 then, and his aunt and uncle from Canada, Joe and Anne Mikita, were visiting the Gvoths in Soholce. They wanted to adopt a child and bring it back to St. Catharines with them. For days the Gvoths fought back the tears that came when they considered what the times were forcing them to do. It was just before Christmas, and Mikita remembers well what happened. "I was lying in bed and I got hungry and asked my mother for some bread and jam. They had discussed going to America with me and they were talking about it when I hollered for the bread and jam. I came down the stairs and my mother said 'No' because she thought I shouldn't have the bread and jam then. I thought she was saying 'No' to my going to Canada. I began to cry and everyone cried.
"When my aunt and uncle finally were taking me to the station in Prague, I wondered what Canada would be like, but when I got to the station and saw that the train was ready to pull out and that my mother and father were going to be left behind I wrapped my arms around a pole and cried. Every inch of the train ride I plotted to jump off and go back to my mother and father. Now I often go in to see my own little daughter at night as she sleeps in her bed, and I think what agony my mother and father must have gone through."
When Mikita arrived in St. Catharines he was convinced that the streets were lined with gold. "It was three days before Christmas and everything seemed so beautiful and everyone so friendly," he says. One day he looked out of the apartment building where the Mikitas lived, and he saw some boys playing hockey in the street below. He had strapped double-runner skates on his feet a few times in Soholce and skated over a pond pushing a cork with a stick. But he didn't know the game of hockey as these boys were now playing it. He knew no English at all, but one of the boys gave him a stick and tried to explain the game. Stan took the stick, and when the first boy tried to get past him he hit the boy with the stick. His first three words of English were "puck," "stick" and "goal." Quickly he learned other words like "D.P." and "Foreigner."
"Although I had been in the third grade back in Soholce," he recalls now, "I was put in the kindergarten in St. Catharines. I learned the language and was promoted to the third grade very soon. But I had this love for hockey, and at 9 I played in a little league that was supposed to be for boys 12-14. In the morning I used to get up at 5:30 and ride on my bike out to a rink and just stand around and wait to be asked to play. It took half an hour to get to the rink and sometimes I could practice for two and a quarter hours before school began. There was an instructor there and a hard one. We used to have to do things right, or he would hit us hard in the shins with a broom. I remember that broom very well and appreciate now what it did for me."
As Mikita worked his way through high school by playing hockey in the semipros, he moved in and out of other sports with amazing skill. He played a game of bantam lacrosse in 1954 and scored eight of his team's 12 goals. One afternoon when the Teepees were returning from a hockey trip the bus let him off at Saltfleet where the senior team was playing football. It was half time, and Mikita got dressed and went out and scored a touchdown and led the team to victory.
Mikita is not a handsome man today. There are puffs and cuts around his face, which make his eyes resemble slits. On the ice, with his black hair plastered down, he looks like a walking ad for "Greasy Kid Stuff." But the chippiness on the ice dissolves when he skates off it, and he savors being Le Petit Diable.
"Things will come up every year," Mikita said one evening. "You know that someone will write a story saying that Mikita and Hull are feuding because Mikita is jealous of Hull getting all the publicity. We laugh at this, Bobby and I. When I first came to Chicago and walked into the dressing room he came over and put his arm around me. He took me in, and we lived together for a year and a half. We have been in business together. We are different types of players, and I see what Bobby can do as well as anyone. Bobby has the type of personality that allows him to stand and sign autographs after losing a game, but I am not built that way. I will walk away and I can hear what people are saying about me. Maybe it is wrong, but that's Stan Mikita."
"How does it feel to be considered No. 2?" you ask Stan Mikita. "Show me the man who ever considers himself No. 2 in anything," is his answer.