NHL legend Stan Mikita — who played for the Chicago Blackhawks for more than two decades — died at the age of 78 on Tuesday, the team confirmed.
Throughout his storied tenure with the Blackhawks, Mikita ranked up for than 1,400 points over 1,396 games played from 1958 to 1980, according to ESPN. As he became the Blackhawks’ all-time leading scorer and an eight-time All-Star, Mikita won back-to-back MVP awards and took home the Lady Byng Trophy twice — an honor reserved for the most gentlemanly hockey player of the season.
With Mikita, the Blackhawks won the 1961 Stanley Cup, their first since 1938. They wouldn’t take home the championship again until 2010. The team retired Mikita’s No. 21 jersey shortly after he played his final game. Just three years later in 1983, he would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“There are no words to describe our sadness over Stan’s passing. He meant so much to the Chicago Blackhawks, to the game of hockey, and to all of Chicago,” Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “He left an imprint that will forever be etched in the hearts of fans – past, present and future. Stan made everyone he touched a better person.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Mikita a “wonderful man” and one of the greatest players in NHL history.
“He was a pioneer of the game in so many ways,” Bettman said. “He curved his stick blade to an extent previously unthinkable, causing his shot to do tricks. He utterly transformed his playing style in his prime, going from one of the League’s most penalized players to one of its most gentlemanly.”
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Mikita — who was born in Sokolce, Czechoslovakia and moved to Canada when he was 8 — was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia in 2015, a disease that affects a patient’s memory, concentration, attention, alertness and wakefulness, reports the National Institute on Aging.
“His mind is completely gone,” Stan’s wife, Jill Mikita, told the Chicago Tribune after the diagnosis. “I don’t like to use that term, but there’s no other way to describe it.”
Before the diagnosis, Jill said she noticed her husband would routinely forget his car keys and cellphone and would get lost driving home from familiar places.
“The hardest thing was in the beginning,” she said at the time. “You saw him slipping away. Every day you would see him and there would be less and less in his eyes. They were just going dead.”
While the family did not release Mikita’s cause of death, ESPN reports that Mikita requested that his brain be donated for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a brain disease that has been found in a growing number of athletes who have participated in sports like hockey and football.
“Stan is from the neck up, completely gone,” Mikita’s daughter, Jane Mikita Gneiser, told the Sun-Times in April. “From the neck down, he is as strong as a horse.”
After Mikita’s passing was announced, NHL fans and players took to social media to pay tribute to the legendary player.
“Playing for the Blackhawks means the world to young players because we get to follow the greats like Stan Mikita,” wrote Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews in a tweet. “What he brought to the game will never be forgotten.”