They are arguably the two greatest players in Chicago Blackhawks history. Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
While the flashy and charismatic goal scorer Hull tends to outrank the crafty Mikita on most rankings of the game's greatest players, many will argue Mikita was the better player.
It's not just a debate over the many years since the two retired. In fact, I vividly recall the argument - Who's better? Hull or Mikita - in the April 1971 periodical called "Hockey." Writer Jim Lynch tackles the Hull vs. Mikita debate:
Is Mikita Better Than Hull?
by Jim Lynch, 1971
The little boy approached the two men in the restaurant. "May I have your autograph, Mr. Hull?" he asked the blond one sheepishly. "Certainly," said Bobby. "Why don't you ask Stan Mikita for his, too?"
Such is the case of Stan Mikita. He is always in the shadow of the Black Hawks number one hero - Bobby Hull.
How a player of Mikita's ability could possibly play second fiddle to anyone is a mystery to many knowledgeable hockey men.
"He's one of the best all-around hockey players I've seen in my life," said Jim Gregory, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "It is just his misfortune that two superstars on the same team cannot share the popularity equally. One is always the darling of the fans while the other works hard for the slightest applause."
Working hard is something Mikita has known all his life. Although he possesses a world of hockey talent, he has found that he must work extra hard to keep his talents at top level.
"Some athletes are so great they don't have to practice," said Mikita. "Bobby Hull is one of them. He is so good everything comes natural to him. I have to work hard and practice hard. It's not so simple."
When Stan came to the Black Hawks from the St. Catherines Juniors at the beginning of the 1959-60 season, he came with more of a reputation for being a "tough guy," rather than a prolific scorer. Although he was his club's leading scorer in his OHA days, the Hawks looked to him more for his checking and fighting ability rather than his overall shinny prowess.
"I'll never forget my first training camp with the Hawks," Stan recalls. "It seems everyone knew of my reputation and no one passed up a chance to hit me good. I think I learned all about the NHL before I played my first regular game."
Stan's first year in Chicago was something other than a smashing success. In 67 games with the Hawks in 1959-60, he scored only eight times, far below his expected level of production. One of the reasons for his rather low scoring total was the fact that he spent a good deal of time sitting in the penalty box when he should have been on the ice. Mikita picked up 119 minutes in penalties in his rookie year, as he immediately picked up the unwanted reputation as a "dirty player."
"That first year almost killed my confidence. I wanted to show the league that I could do more than collect penalties. But the more i tried to concentrate on scoring, the more I seemed to wind up in the penalty box. Sometimes I wonder why they didn't get rid of me after that first season," Stan admitted.
Despite his poor showing on the ice everyone in the Hawk brain trust from general manager Tommy Ivan on down felt confident that their prize rookie would come through.
"He made plenty of mistakes out there in the beginning but you could still see he was a good hockey player beneath the greenness," said his former coach Rudy Pilous at a recent banquet. "Don't forget, he wasn't even twenty years old when he broke in. Most kids are still in the juniors at that age."
Under the watchful eye of the Chicago management, Mikita slowly but surely developed, first into a capable performer, and then eventually into the superstar he became by the mid-1960s. In eleven seasons with the Black Hawks, Stan has tallied 324 goals to go along with 530 assists for 854 points (Joe's note - remember, this is a classic article written back in 1971). He has topped the thirty goal mark on seven occasions in addition to walking away with the Art Ross Trophy, symbolic of the leagu's leading scorer, four times in a span of five years. His trophy collection also includes the coveted Hart Award as the NHL's Most Valuable Player.
Summing up, Mikita has four scoring titles, Hull has three; Stan has two MVP awards as does Bobby. Stan has two Lady Byng trophies to Hull's one.
If there was ever an award that the experts felt Stan Mikita could never win, it was the Lady Byng Trophy. This hardware is given annually to the player considered to be the "Most Gentlemanly" on the ice. Stan Mikita a gentleman. "Ha" would have been the most common reaction about five years ago. In his seven seasons up to 1966, Mikita had collected over 700 penalty minutes, conduct hardly acceptable for parole, let alone the Lady Byng.
Then suddenly, in 1966-67, Stan changed his style completely. Gone were the days of the sneaky elbow, the tangle in the corner, the high sticks in the front of the net. He collected only 12 minutes in penalties that year, a total he sometimes reached in one period in the past. He was rewarded with his good behavior with the Byng trophy that semester, as well as the following term when he tolled only 14 minutes in the sin bin.
Why the big change?
"I decided I was wearing myself out with too much brawling," Stan explained. "When we played the Montreal Canadiens in the 1964-65 Stanley Cup final I had nothing left in the seventh and deciding game and we lost to Montreal, 4-0. Jean Beliveau had a poor first half that season but came on strong and finished up by scoring the winning goal in the playoffs against me. He got 8 goals and 16 points and I got 3 and 10.
The new Mikita was the toast of the league. "He is now the most dangerous plyaer in the league," stated Bruin general manager Milt Schmidt. "In the past we felt that we could take him off the ice for a while by getting involved in a scrap. But now he avoids trouble and stays on the ice longer."
Oddly enough, there was one rink in the league where his new image was not appreciated - Chicago Stadium. As the '60s drew on, Stan began to hear something he had rarely heard at home games - boos. In spite of his great performances at center ice, the fans accused him of nothing 100 per cent. They would usually point to his diminishing penalty totals as proof. "Mikita, you're chicken" yelled the boo-birds. "When are you ever going to get into a fight?" they demanded.
It can be argued that the true cause of the fans' discontent with Mikita is their undying love for the other half of the Hawks super-pair - Bobby Hull. This is comparable to the booing Roger Maris was subjected to in his final days in Yankee pinstripes. Mickey Mantle was the darling in the Bronx, and the fans' booing of Maris has been interpreted as punishment for attempting to steal some of Mickey's limelight.
Unlike Maris, who lost his composure at the hands of the paying gods, Mikita has learned to live with the "second citizen" status.
"Bobby's got the image, and he is the fair-haired boy," says Stan. "Being No. 2 to Hull is not bad and besides there is nothing I can do about it."
Off the ice Stan and Bobby are much closer than just teammates.
"Bobby is one of my closest friends in or out of hockey. We have absolutely no rivalry of any kind. These things you hear about us are just untrue."
Although Mikita is still in his prime, there appears to be a dark cloud on the horizon. He has been bothered for the past few seasons by a bad back which thus has not kept him out of the lineup. He has tried waring a corset on the ice, similar to the type worn by Rod Gilbert when he had his back miseries, but he found it hampered his breathing.
"Now i wear the corset only when I go to bed and it's the best arrangement yet," Stan stated toward the end of last season.
"But it's still a definite problem," he continued. "It gets so damn sore sometimes I think I can't stand it. It's like a dull toothache. It just never lets up. But in the games, unless I twist sharply, or something like that, I just forget about it."
Bad backs have put scores of hockey stars on the shelf. It is something coach Billy Reay and the Hawk management cannot take lightly.
"We realize the problem is there," said Reay during last year's playoffs. "We try not to think about it, just hope it doesn't get any worse."
Stan Mikita is a rare breed. He is the king in pauper's clothing. He is an opera star in the role of spear carrier. As long as Bobby Hull plays in Chicago, he will have to accept his status. As he says, "what can I do?" Mikita has learned that it is impossible to please all the fans, especially in Chicago. He knows that there is only one person he must please, the toughest critic of all - himself.