Heritage Moments: A boy leaves home and crosses the ocean, with no idea he’ll become a hockey star

Mar 12, 2018

Stan Mikita of the St. Catharines Teepees in 1957 at age 17 — less than a decade after he left Czechoslovakia. Mikita went on to play 22 years for the Chicago Blackhawks, as one of the greatest centremen of the 20th century.
Credit St. Catharines Museum

As a little boy growing up in Sokolče, a small village in postwar Czechoslovakia, Stanislav Gvoth didn’t know anything about hockey. He didn’t even know how to skate, and he didn’t particularly care. He was just a kid, with an older brother and recent wartime memories of German soldiers bivouacking in the small family house. Young Stanislav had no inkling he would grow up to be Stan Mikita, one of the greatest hockey players of all time.


One night in 1948, the Gvoth family was visited by 8-year-old Stanislav’s aunt and uncle, Anna and Joe Mikita. The Mikitas had left Czechoslovakia years before and now lived across the ocean, in St. Catharines, Ontario. They offered to adopt Stanislav and take him back with them to Canada, a more prosperous land on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Stanislav’s parents, Juraj and Emilia, were resisting the offer when Stanislav broke into the conversation. He was hungry and began to cry – but his parents thought he was crying because he wanted to go to Canada. Moved by his tears and frustrated by their own tight finances, they decided to let their boy go with Anna and Joe. Stanislav, without grasping how momentous a change it would be to leave his home and family, thought that was fine.

“What if I hadn’t been hungry that night?,” he wondered many years later in his autobiography, “Forever a Blackhawk”, “What if I had just gone to sleep and never cried while my parents resisted saying good-bye to their youngest son?”

Stanislav, Aunt Anna and Uncle Joe left the little village in the Slovakian part of the country and boarded a westbound train to the capital, Prague. He marveled at the tall buildings, gazing upward, even walking smack into a pole. But right around then something else struck the young boy: the realization that he was going somewhere far, far away.

Stanislav cried again on the long train trip to Le Havre, France, where they boarded the RMS Carinthia, an ocean liner bound for Canada. They finally got to St. Catharines just before Christmas. Now, legally adopted, he was Stan Mikita – but he still didn’t know a word of English. He gazed out the window of their little bungalow on Hamilton Street, watching the neighborhood boys play road hockey.

Like so many young immigrants, Stan quickly assimilated. He learned the language, soon speaking it without an accent. He came to regard Anna and Joe as his real parents. And he took up sports, which in St. Kitts meant hockey first and foremost. He got so good at it that at 15 he was recruited by the St. Catharines Teepees of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Junior A division, the top developmental league in the sport. His teammates included Bobby Hull, the future all-time great.

Mikita led the OHA in scoring, and when he turned 18 he was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks. There, in 1959, he joined Hull and a slightly older Blackhawk from Fort Erie and the Buffalo Bisons, the great defenceman Pierre Pilote. Together they helped make the Hawks one of the NHL’s premier teams for more than a generation.

Mikita played 22 seasons, all with Chicago. He won one Stanley Cup, four scoring titles, two MVP trophies and two Lady Byng Awards for sportsmanship and excellence. He became a top star for Team Canada (while still fluent in his native Slovak), and, after retirement, a beloved figure in the culture at large, and especially in the Windy City, where he served as a team ambassador well into the 2010’s. 

None of that would have happened had he stayed in Sokolče. In his autobiography, Mikita and his wife, Jill, reflect on what might have been had his mother, Emilia Gvoth, not agreed to let him go to St. Catharines with Anna and Joe.

“Shortly before she died in 1996, Jill and I were visiting her in her house,” he wrote. “I recall one instance when Mom became quiet and very pensive. She was quiet, thinking, pondering. Then she just looked up at me and, out of nowhere, said, ‘I made the right decision.’”

Cast (in order of appearance):

Train conductor: Jeff Z. Klein

Stanislav Gvoth (Stan Mikita): Sara Heres

Joe Mikita: Mark Bogumil

Anna Mikita: Jenny Annas

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Brodie Spies (Niagara College Canada, Welland), Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Robin McCulloch, professor and program coordinator, acting for film and television, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Bruce Gilbert, professor of broadcasting -- radio, television and film, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)