Like several of the best “war stories” attributed to Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, this is one that was known only to Gordie for a time. That was because #9 was not only explosive and powerful and dazzling as a hockey player … he could also be sneaky, and surreptitious and — in this case — almost kind of “private” in his on-ice performances.
This story centers around one of the best players in the NHL in the 1960s, Chicago’s Stan Mikita. The thin and quick centerman was not only very good, especially in the clutch, he was an annoying bastard in every phase of the game. To make things worse, he played the game with a wiseass smirk on his face. It was probably no accident that he was schooled in his aggressive and pesky style by Robert Blake Theodore “Ted” Lindsay, the former Red Wings captain and onetime linemate of Howe, who had been traded to then-lowly Chicago in 1957 by Detroit boss Jack Adams to teach him — indeed all players around the league — that lipping off to management AND pushing for a players’ union would bring quick and awful retribution. (Adams was a bona fide jerk, but that’s another column.)
Mikita, possibly pushed by Lindsay — his teammate from ’58 to ’60 — had the nerve as a youngster to not only mouth off to the toughest man in the game … but to pester him physically. The young Czech emigre’ went beyond the bounds of agitation — and good sense — when he high-sticked Howe in a Detroit–Chicago bout in the early ’60s, drawing blood from hockey’s king. THAT … you just could not do. In fact, nobody did, season after season. It just wasn’t done. Here’s why:
This may have occurred anywhere from 1960 to ’62 … the exact date doesn’t matter. Suffice to say that it had been months since the high-sticking incident; in fact, so long that Mikita was even taunting Howe on the ice, ridiculing his tough-guy reputation and pointing out how he had cut Gordie and got away with it.
The game was at Olympia. Play was deep in the Detroit end. Gordie and Mikita had tangled behind the Wings’ net, before Howe got the puck up-ice to linemate Alex Delvecchio, who began a frenzied Detroit attack into the Chicao end. Still attached to each other, Howe and Mikita finally pulled apart as they slowly made their way to the Wings blue line, badly trailing the play — which was now zooming around the Chicago net. All eyes were on the puck flying around at the other end … including Howe’s, and Mikita’s, the fans’, and — Gordie noted –the referee’s. Number Nine, who had waited patiently for months, seized his opportunity. Slowly putting one glove under his opposite arm, and carefully withdrawing his hand … he cocked his bulging fist, pulling it back about six inches … then proceeded to land a lightning bolt –a quick but exceedingly powerful punch to the prominent and scrawny Adam’s Apple of Mr. Mikita, who was skating at his side.
Down went Stanley.
When play was finally whistled dead in the Chicago end, all eyes returned back up ice to behold the Blackhawk’s young #21 trying — of all strange things — to crawl on his hands and knees towards the Chicago bench. He was having a bad time getting there. In fact, he was barely progressing at all. Crawling? There’s no crawling in hockey. Further in the distance, the nonchalant #9 of the Red Wings was casually heading to the Red Wings bench when he too looked back, and saw poor Stanley in his predicament. Howe joined officials and Mikita’s teammates, skating over to investigate his collapse.
Mikita seemed in shock. Trying to rise, and falling again … he was unable to tell his teammates what had happened to him. He had been skating easily along, and the lights just went out. His legs were wobbly, and his voice didn’t work. The players slowly slid him, bent over, towards the Chicago bench. Ever the good Samaritan, old Gord offered what little consolation he could muster.
“Hey Stan,” Howe said to the bedazzled Blackhawk, who peered back at him with mismatched eyes … “did you get the number of that truck that hit you?”