George Marek hasn’t had the easiest year.
Between a couple of strokes and an ongoing battle with bladder cancer, the 90-year-old World War II veteran from Fox Lake has had a difficult go of it. Through all of his health-related difficulties, though, Marek has managed to maintain his lifelong love affair with the Blackhawks, who captured their second Stanley Cup championship in four years with a dramatic, come-from-behind Game 6 victory over the Boston Bruins on Monday night.
As much jubilation that came with that win – secured by goals from Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland 17 seconds apart – the Hawks' 3-1 Game 5 victory at the United Center on Saturday night will be the one Marek never forgets.
Marek – who served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945 – was honored by the Hawks as one of three service veterans to join the team’s anthem singer, Jim Cornelison, on the ice for Cornelison’s stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
“It was the thrill of my life,” Marek said Monday. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think there was the slightest chance I’d even go to a game.
“I never dreamed I’d be inside.”
It didn’t come without some effort from Marek’s daughter, Sue Mlynski, who hoped to surprise her father with tickets to the Stanley Cup Final. She tried everything. She called TV and radio stations, newspapers and even the VFW and USO, hoping someone – anyone – would have connections to get Marek tickets to a game.
She called the Blackhawks’ front office, which said they would do what they could to include Marek in a pregame ceremony. But that wouldn’t happen until next season. Mlynski feared that would be too late.
“Next year, he may not be here,” she said.
The Hawks apologized. Mlynski kept searching for the hard-to-come-by tickets, even preparing to enter an NBC Chicago Facebook contest that offered entry to a Stanley Cup Final home game.
That’s when the Hawks called back. They wondered whether Mlynski could have her father at the United Center before Game 5, where he would appear on the ice along with Cornelison. The news brought Mlynski to tears.
Not wanting to ruin the surprise, Mlynski called Marek and asked him to lunch at a Bohemian restaurant in Schaumburg. But when the trip from McHenry County lasted longer than expected, Marek started to get suspicious.
“I can’t wait to eat,” he said. “Let’s just go somewhere else.”
Before long, the suburban sights gave way to Chicago's skyline. Willis Tower came into sight. Marek knew he had been had. Mlynski made the turn onto Madison Street. Marek’s mind started to run.
“I started to wonder if she had possibly got me a ticket,” he said. “But I couldn’t figure out how.”
Mlynski broke the news that Marek had been selected to appear on the ice during the pregame ceremony. She had taken his khaki uniform shirt, still filled with medals, out of storage and pressed it so that Marek would be dressed appropriately for the occasion.
After a quick trip to ice level, Marek was wheeled out onto the red carpet. As the United Center organ began the opening bars of the national anthem, he saluted the flag hanging from the United Center rafters as Cornelison’s booming voice began what is one of the more memorable moments of the Hawks’ game day festivities.
Afterward, Marek was ushered to a seat where he and his fellow veterans watched the Hawks' 3-1 victory capped by Patrick Kane’s two goals. The group received a standing ovation during an announcement recognizing the three veterans and their image appeared on the Jumbotron.
“It was just a wonderful, wonderful time,” Marek said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
As Mlynski watched as her father sat at attention on the ice, tears welled up in her eyes. She said at that moment, everything Marek had been part of – including his tours of duty in the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day invasion of Normandy – came flooding in.
The fact his beloved Blackhawks had recognized him – on a night that brought them closer to the Stanley Cup – made the moment even more special.
“It will be a night he will never forget. It’s a night I will never forget,” Mlynski said. “This will be something we talk about for the rest of our lives.”