Stan Mikita Lights Up Green Bay

Stan Mikita, who died Tuesday at the age of 78, spent a night in Green Bay Wisconsin and lit up the ice.

Stan Mikita

The Chicago Blackhawks had never played a game in Wisconsin until they met the Green Bay Bobcats in an exhibition game on Oct. 9, 1966.

The Blackhawks, who were gearing up for their 41st season in the National Hockey League (NHL), were well into their exhibition season when they rolled into Green Bay for a match at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena. The Blackhawks were loaded with players familiar to fans of that era, notably fast and powerful Bobby Hull, nicknamed the Golden Jet and who was the league’s incandescent goal-scoring superstar of the 1960s.

And the Hawks also had Stan Mikita, a slick and creative center often eclipsed by Bobby Hull’s charisma but just as often a player who surpassed Hull in the box score. Mikita was trim, shifty and saw everything on the ice; his passes were things of beauty because they were creative and often arrived on the blade of the intended target. Plus, he had a little Charles Bronson thing going. When we divided up into teams before the road and rink hockey games of my youth, Stan Mikita was a player everyone claimed to be.

Though the Blackhawks were five years removed from their 1960-61 Stanley Cup championship (their first since 1938 and their last until 2010) many players were still in their prime. Bobby Hull was 27—the year before he scored 54 goals and would score 52 in the 1966-67 season. Mikita was 26 and would win the NHL scoring title that season with 97 points. Bobby’s younger brother, Dennis Hull, was 23, Phil Esposito was only 24, and Lou Angotti was 28. Greybeards on the team included Pierre Pilot (35) Kenny Wharram (33) and Doug Mohns (32).

Dennis DeJordy and Glenn Hall (who was in his mid-30s) shared goaltending duties during the 1965-66 season and would do so again in 1966-67.

The Bobcats—a semipro team that rostered many U.S. Olympians during their 23-year history—had struggled the previous two seasons, going 11-17 in 1964-65 and 12-18 in 1965-66 and change was in the air entering the 1966-67 season. The team was under new ownership in the form of Jim Van Essen, who owned Sure Way Stores in Green Bay area. Pete Buchmann, a former Bobcats player, was now the head coach. John Mayasich—who won a silver medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 1956 and a gold medal in 1960—served two roles: an off-ice general manager and on-ice player.

The Bobcats had a few practices in late September but lost the ice for 10 days to fulfill the needs of other arena customers. Ice was reinstalled the week of the Blackhawks game.

On the Tuesday before the game, Buchmann appeared before the weekly luncheon of Green Bay’s “Mike and Pen Club” and told the media and sporting public that the Bobcats chances of beating the Blackhawks was “minimal.” Given that the Blackhawks had been on ice for several weeks and had exhibition games behind them and his Bobcats had neither, Buchmann was realistic. He said he would be happy if the Bobcats were trimmed by a handful of goals and offered a 6-2 type of loss as one he could be happy with. Fans, he said, will “see the finest hockey players available. At least on one end of the rink.”

Game On

The Blackhawks wore their red with black-and-white trim uniforms. The Bobcats wore their home whites.

Late in the first period in a scoreless game, the Bobcats had the puck in the Chicago end. Mayasich whistled a shot wide. Green Bay’s Stu Anderson corralled the rebound off the boards, slid the puck to Paul Coppo in front and the Hancock, Mich. native shot it past ‘Hawks goal Dennis DeJordy. 1-0 Bobcats. Simple as a pimple.

The crowd roar is what I remember most about the Bobcats’ goal. It was deafening and sustained; the crowd seemed to know this might be the one time in the game when the Bobcats actually had a lead. While the Bobcats were tapping shin pads and celebrating on the ice and on the bench, they had to know the sleeping giant in front of them was now awake.

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Second period action between the Green Bay Bobcats and Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks quickly scored three goals to quiet the crowd, Mikita giving the Blackhawks their first lead at 19:13 by rifling the puck past Bobcats’ goalie Jim Mattson.

The Blackhawks loosened up in the second period and peppered 25 shots at Mattson and got five by him. They added three more in the third. Final score: Blackhawks 11, Bobcats 1. Chicago outshot the Bobcats 58-22. Jim Mattson stopped 35 of 43 Chicago shots in the first two periods and Bill Rowe saved 12 shots out of 15 in the third period for the Bobcats.

Mikita led the Blackhawks with 4 goals and three assists and was the best player on the ice. Mohns had a goal and three helpers and Bobby Hull scored twice and had an assist. The Golden Jet signed every autograph he could before and after the game.

Courtesy Green Bay Press-Gazette

Using a curved stick, the blade bent like a banana, Bobby Hull powdered a 100-foot rising and dipping slap shot that just missed Mattson’s net. Mattson said it was the hardest shot he’d ever seen. Curved blades—their use pioneered by Makita—were coming into vogue in the NHL and at rinks wherever hockey was played in North America. Curved blades altered the physics of shots, making the puck fly in erratic paths, like knuckleballs in baseball. Goaltenders discovered that dancing and dipping shots off banana blades were difficult to stop. When pucks sped toward them at speeds near 100 miles-per-hour, they were also dangerous to their health.

In many ways, Bobby Hull was the face of the NHL in the mid-1960s. Though he was still playing, the superstar sheen had left Detroit Red Wings player Gordy Howe. It now belonged to the glittering left winger Hull, but fame in professional sports is transitory.

When the regular season began on Oct. 19, 1966, 18-year-old Bobby Orr first took the ice for the Boston Bruins. Eventually it was Orr, a defenseman, who represented the NHL in the eyes of the public. But on that night, the public was largely unaware of Bobby Orr, and Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter Lee Remmel caught up to Bobby Hull in the Blackhawks dressing room. Hull said he knew one Bobcats’ player—Hank Therrien. “He was skating for Bellville Ontario when I was just a stickboy,” Hull said, adding that his teammates knew the Bobcats had not had much practice ice going into the match. “[The Bobcats] are a good hard-working club,” Hull said. “They’ll improve after they’ve had a chance to play a few games.”

The Bobcats carved out a 14-13-3 record in 1966-67. The Blackhawks finished first during the NHL regular season in 1966-67 (a first for the franchise) but the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished fourth during the regular season, bounced them out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in six games. How the talented Blackhawks only won one Cup in the 1960s remains a mystery.

The NHL began regulating curved blades after the 1966-67 season and a year later, the NHL doubled the size of the league to 12 teams by adding the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the St. Louis Blues.

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  • Stan Mikita photo courtesy
  • Game photo courtesy Green Bay Press-Gazette and Copper Country Hockey History.
  • The photo of Bobby Hull used in this story appeared on the back of Chex cereals in the United States and Canada from 1963 to 1965. The Ralston-Purina Company owns the Chex family of cereals.

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