Blackhawks great Stan Mikita honored, remembered, cherished at public visitation

Stan Mikita rolled down his car window, smiled at young David Salazar and gave him a thumbs-up. It was a simple, kind gesture. It was enough to change a 10-year-old’s life.

Salazar was out for a skate that night at Eckhart Park, a mile or so from the old Chicago Stadium. He wasn’t a big kid. He wasn’t even a hockey player. Half a century later, though, he still plays the game recreationally — and it all started with a look from his hero.

“He got me into hockey as a young boy,” said Salazar, 60. “Instead of being out getting in trouble, I was out at the parks [until] 10:30, 11 o’clock at night, skating in my figure skates because I couldn’t afford regular hockey skates. I was out there skating my life away.”

Salazar struggled to hold his emotions together Sunday outside the United Center, inside which a public visitation was held for Mikita, the Blackhawks great who died five days earlier at age 78.

Mikita’s family — his wife of 55 years, Jill, their two daughters, two sons, several grandchildren and others — sat before a closed casket with a No. 21 Hawks jersey spread across the top. Surrounding the casket were dozens of yellow roses (Mikita’s favorite color and flower) as well as the Hart, Art Ross and Lady Bing trophies, which the Hawks’ all-time leader in points (1,467) and games played (1,394) won a combined eight times.

The family declined all media interviews, as did members of the Hawks organization, but a steady stream of fans came through the building, paid their respects and shared their own stories.

Mikita was believed to have the progressive brain disease Lewy body dementia, robbing him of memories of a one-of-a-kind Hawks career that spanned from 1959 to 1980. Devoted fans had his back on a steamy Sunday, offering special remembrances while standing in a line that began at the UC’s East Atrium door and snaked west on Madison toward a statue of Mikita that glistened in the midday sun.

Terry Frigo of Oak Lawn called Mikita the “greatest hockey player in the history of the game.” As a boy, Frigo — whose father, a Chicago fireman, snuck him into many a Hawks game for free — handed Mikita a hockey stick to sign. Mikita looked him up and down and said: “Hey, kid, where’d you get this? You’re not supposed to have anything like this.”

The stick now shares a space in Frigo’s home with Mikita-autographed jerseys, pucks, books and other memorabilia.

“I just had to be part of this,” Frigo said.

Ann Riffle of Joliet and Cindy Kemphues of Champaign got to know Mikita through his camp for players who are deaf or hard of hearing, which their sons attended. Many years later, both women continue to volunteer with the camp.

“It was very much a family-oriented affair, and still is,” Kemphues said. “And Stan was a big part of that.”

“Even though he didn’t know sign language, he had a gentle communication with those kids that just made them feel like rock stars,” Riffle said. “He just had a way. I mean, if you knew him, you knew.”

Lesley Ragland drove 80 miles from Poplar Grove, near Rockford, to honor her late father’s favorite player. Barbara Cieslak, 81, came from Norridge, where a bathroom in her home is decorated — yes, it’s true — in all things Hawks.

“[Mikita] seemed like a nice guy,” Cieslak said. “I don’t know, just a nice man. And my son gave me a book about him, and I read that and liked him even more.”

Ed and Jan Fisher, of Libertyville, considered Mikita a friend. Ed was superintendent of Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook in the 1970s when Mikita and Hawks teammate Cliff Koroll often teed it up there. One day, Ed ran tickets to the Western Open over to Mikita’s home in Oak Brook. Mikita noticed Ed’s wife and two children in the running pickup truck and waved the whole gang inside.

“He was the greatest,” Fisher said. “I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of pro athletes, and he was the genuine deal. He was friendly and kind and genuine.”

Kevin Hughes, 72, hails from Berwyn and lives in Phoenix. He extended a visit to Chicago by two days — changing his return flight home — after learning of plans for Sunday’s public visitation.

In his early years in the NHL, Mikita had a friend who lived on Hughes’ block in Berwyn. Every now and again, the star would pull up in his car, roll down the window and say hi to the folks in the street.

“You know, when you’re young, you don’t know what to say to those guys,” Hughes recalled.

And if he could tell Mikita something now?

“Oh, wow. Thanks for everything. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for being such a great player and a loyal Blackhawk.”

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