The 54-year-old from Chicago was first in a long line of fans that wrapped around the United Center for public visitation of Mikita, who died Tuesday at 78.
“I’d stand in line all day long to get to say goodbye,” said Schmitt-Berg, who was there at 7:20 a.m. CT, almost four hours before the doors opened at 11 a.m. “We’ll miss him.”
Most of those who attended the service, many wearing No. 21 jerseys, signed a poster of Mikita when they entered the United Center atrium. Mikita’s casket was flanked by two vases of roses in his favorite color, yellow. In addition to his retired No. 21 banner, the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, and the Art Ross, Lady Byng and Hart Memorial trophies were on display. Mikita, who won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 1961, is the only player in NHL history to win the Art Ross, Hart and Lady Byng trophies in the same season, doing so twice (1966-67, 1967-68). He also won the Art Ross, awarded to the League’s leading scorer, in 1963-64 and 1964-65.
Mikita, a forward, played all 22 of his NHL seasons with the Blackhawks and is Chicago’s all-time leader in points (1,467), assists (926) and games played (1,396). In 1980, he became the first Blackhawks player to have his number retired. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983 and on March 7, 2008, was named a team ambassador for the Blackhawks, appearing at games and events around Chicago.
Longtime Blackhawks teammate Bobby Hull and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel were also in attendance.
Fans shared their memories of Mikita, from listening to Blackhawks games on the radio, watching him play at Chicago Stadium or meeting him at local events. John Sczczepanski, 65, of Lansing, Illinois, has been coming to Blackhawks games since 1964.
“It means a lot because [Mikita] played the game the right way and lived his life the right way. I still have his book, ‘I Play To Win,’ and that was motivational for me,” Sczczepanski said. “He was special. I didn’t really know him, but seeing how he played, how he changed his game from the beginning, he was chippy and fighting and all of that, and then two years in a row you win three trophies. That was special.”
Dale Wurfel, 56, traveled over 400 miles to Chicago from London, Ontario, to pay his respects. At age 7, Wurfel got a Mikita-signed stick, puck and program through family friend Lou Varga, who was then the Blackhawks trainer. In 1980, Wurfel met Mikita through his cousin, forward Tim Trimper, who spent one season with the Blackhawks.
“Growing up, playing hockey, I wore 21 because of Stan,” Wurfel said. “Everything’s 21 for me. He was just a fierce little competitor who overcame all of that adversity. He’s just a great life story, so that’s why he was always my idol.”
Like Mikita, Miro Bellak, 39, and his wife, Maya, 42, of Hickory Hills, Illinois, were born in Slovakia before moving to North America. They wore Slovakia shirts Sunday and Miro wore a Slovakia scarf, which he gave to one of Mikita’s grandsons before he left the viewing.
“A great man, a great grandpa, father and husband. All the way around, a great man,” Miro said of Mikita, who was born Stanislav Gvoth on May 20, 1940, in what is now Sokolce, Slovakia. He was adopted by his uncle and aunt, Joe and Anna Mikita in 1948, and moved to St. Catherines, Ontario. “We were brought up the same way as far as our values in life. We always felt like, whenever we saw him, he felt like a person from our family even though we aren’t related.”
Though Mikita will always be remembered for what he did on the ice, his humanitarianism has left its mark. Hannah Garcia, 17, of Naperville, Illinois, has played hockey in the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association since she was 11. Mikita founded AHIHA in 1973 and Garcia, who has lost about 55 percent of her hearing, said the impact AHIHA has had on her life is immeasurable.
“I can’t put into that words. It’s my whole life,” said Garcia, who is best friends with Mikita’s granddaughter, Kayla and has played against Mikita’s grandsons, Charlie and Billy. “The people I know now, my closest friends are from AHIHA. I didn’t really grasp the whole idea of Stan back then [when first joining AHIHA].
“I knew he wasn’t there anymore, but that he started it. I knew the gist, but didn’t know all of it. So, it’s crazy now to see how much I do know and how much it’s changed my life and made it better. It’s made me a better person.”
For Chuck Sikaras, 64, of Warrenville, Illinois, the Mikita visitation was emotional.
“I’ve been a Blackhawks season ticket-holder for 42 years. I saw him score his 500th goal, saw the retirement of his jersey,” Sikaras said. “It’s just the humility, the graciousness. He was a fine ambassador for the game, a treasured human being.”