MELROSE PARK — The Godfather of Chicago hockey is still going strong at 88 years old.
Mike Nardella, who's affectionately known as Mike "The Hat" because he always wears a chapeau, has been involved with the game in the Windy City since 1937. The Near West Side native has served in countless capacities — from training room attendant with the Chicago Blackhawks, to general manager of the long-gone Chicago Warriors.
He's been a high school coach and an NHL scout. He offered his home to needy Blackhawks while the new players were still looking for permanent residences.
Nardella, who attended Crane Technical High School but served in World War II in Europe before graduating, has served as the Chicago Wolves' hockey operations advisor since the team was founded in 1994.
"He's forgotten more about hockey than I'll probably ever know," said Wolves owner Don Levin, an Albany Park native. "He probably knows more about Chicago hockey than anyone alive."
Levin and the Wolves are honoring Nardella, who earned a Purple Heart serving under Patton, on Jan. 18 as part of the team's Military Appreciation Weekend.
"His presence within the city is huge," said Wolves captain Darren Haydar, a 33-year-old right wing.
Nardella's hockey life began when he was 13, when he attended a Hawks game and thought it would be a good idea to try to steal a game-used stick. Nardella was caught, he was taken to the Blackhawks' main office and was instructed to work in the team's locker room. There, he sharpened skates, hung jerseys in lockers and performed other trainer duties.
His only break from the game since was his three-year World War II stint in France and Germany, where a sniper's bullet grazed his nose while he served as a part of the mechanized cavalry, which defused and secured bridges.
"I don't know if he was shooting at me, but I felt a zing and it skimmed my nose from right to left," said Nardella, a longtime Melrose Park resident. "I've seen a lot of death in my life. I was lucky to come back home."
Nardella said luck and building friendships have been the two biggest keys in developing his hockey resume. He bonded with former Red Wings owner James Norris, showing him where to play cards when he was in Chicago. Nardella said former Blackhawks general managers/coaches Bill Tobin and Tommy Ivan were considered good friends.
"I was around some of the finest coaches, general managers and ownerships," said Nardella, who also worked in the circulation departments at the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun newspapers in addition to serving 30 years as the mutual director for the Chicago-area racetracks.
Nardella became a general manager in the early 1970s for the Chicago Warriors, who played at the Chicago Stadium before folding after three seasons. He also coached Fenwick High School's hockey team to three Catholic League titles.
"I still run into some of those guys from Fenwick, and they talk about him like he's a god," said Nardella's nephew Bob Nardella, who played for the Wolves for nine seasons and was a two-time member of the Italian Olympic team.
Nardella has a variety of tasks with the Wolves. As he did with the Blackhawks, Nardella has had several Wolves players stay at his home when they first join the team.
"One of the best moves the Wolves made was getting Mike on board," said Gene Ubriaco, the team's senior advisor and director of hockey operations who also was the club's head coach in the 1994-1995 season.
When Ubriaco was hired, he recommended Nardella. It didn't hurt that Wolves co-owner Buddy Meyers had worked for Nardella at Arlington Park over a summer while he was in law school, and the two had run across each other at Blackhawks games over the years.
"He is one of my most dear friends right now," said Meyers, who grew up in South Shore and lives in River North. "Just a wonderful example of a human being."
If a player has problems, Nardella comes to the rescue. When left wing Brett Sterling recently lost track of his driver's license, Nardella took him to the DMV and waited with him for 2 1/2 hours, Sterling said.
"I was really panicking, but he just took care of it," said Sterling, 28. "He's an amazing guy and a big part of this organization."
Nardella fist-bumps the Wolves' players before every period. He also sits in the front row, wearing his trademark hats, especially his preferred felt-covered Borsalinos.
"When you come to Chicago, you know the big man behind the glass," Haydar said. "Still at his age, he comes to the rink every day, and he's not happy unless we win."
Nardella was married for 50 years to his wife Joyce, who passed away in 1999. He has four sons, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
He's created a remarkably large hockey family, too.
"It's been a helluva adventure," he said. "I've enjoyed every moment of it."