I grew up at the Chicago Stadium.
My early memories included walking up the winding stairwell to the first balcony. Sixty nine total steps (I looked it up), but for a young kid, it seemed like a thousand.
Section G, Row B, Seats 1-4. On the corner, where the Blackhawks shot twice…my dad’s season tickets for more than 35 years.
Back then, the majority of home games were on Sunday and Wednesday nights.
Early on, we would leave halfway through the third period because I usually had school the next day. That eventually changed as my dad realized I was turning into a diehard Blackhawks fan, and didn't want to miss one minute. Monday and Thursday mornings were a struggle waking up, but well worth it to stay until the final horn the night before.
Hockey nights at the stadium were an education for me. Learning the game that I grew up to love, memorizing all the players’ names, the numbers on the sweaters, and learning ‘new’ words from fans sitting around us yelling at the referee.
But it was more than just the game that I came to appreciate — it was the history of the stadium and the team.
As a kid not even 10 years old, my eyes and mind wandered around the stadium. The bright lights, the unique sound of the pipe organ, the vendor yelling ‘beer man’, I soaked it all in.
There was a gentleman who had season tickets down the row from us who liked to drink his beer, and when he would squeeze through the aisle with a refill, he would yell ‘hot coffee’, so people would give him room to walk. Everyone laughed.
That memory is still fresh today, along with the fan who showed up to every game with a Blackhawks jersey over the button down collared dress shirt he wore to work earlier in the day.
The banners that hung from the rafters: Norris Division winners, Campbell Conference championships, Stanley Cup titles, and two lone banners with 21 and 9 sewn on them. This is when I began learning about Stan Mikita the man, not just the hockey player.
It took me until now to realize that my dad loved talking the game of hockey with me, because it gave him a chance to talk about his hockey heroes when he was a kid. At the age of 21, my dad experienced the 1961 championship with Mikita and Bobby Hull raising the cup.
He taught me about the game, but also shared stories about his favorite players. Mikita was one of them. He was a great stick handler and could skate around players with ease.
Years after his retirement, while we were at a charity game, Mikita took the ice with a puck tied to his stick. Just like in his prime, no one could steal the puck from No. 21.
While my dad saw him rack up franchise records in games (1,396), assists (926) and points (1,467), I witnessed more of his off-ice contributions to the community and charities.
What seemed like a lifetime ago, but probably 30 years, we would drive to ice arenas like the ‘Skatium’ in Skokie and Northbrook Sports Center to watch Blackhawk alumni and current players take on a team made up of hearing impaired players.
They were light-hearted games, but you knew both teams wanted to win. Even though Mikita had been retired for years, it was special to see him on the ice. I wish I would have appreciated it more at the time.
My dad explained to me about Stan’s involvement with the hearing impaired. After learning a teammate’s son was born partially deaf, Mikita was determined to start a hockey school that eventually evolved into the American Hearing Impaired Association.
His charity work started during his career, and continued on a larger scale after he hung up the skates. A lot of players fade out of the limelight after retirement, but it was the exact opposite for Mikita. I think my dad grew to respect Mikita even more after his playing career.
Like thousands of Blackhawk fans I was saddened to hear of Mikita's passing last Tuesday.
The news hit me harder than I thought it would, because I realized the impact Stan had on the relationship with my dad growing up. I am grateful for all the experiences early in my life, and miss them at the same time.
No one lives forever, but I wish some of the great ones could.