December 28, 2013 at 1:22 am

Terry Foster

Mike Ilitch deserves credit for bringing Winter Festival's energy to downtown Detroit

Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has turned Comerica Park into a winter festival with an abundance of hockey events. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — This is the way Hockeytown is supposed to look.

Children laughing and enjoying local bands outside Comerica Park. Former Red Wings players outside the stadium signing autographs, enjoying the limelight yet again.

And inside the baseball stadium — yes, a baseball stadium — hockey teams from Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan and Michigan Tech skating on a makeshift rink in front of a throng of fans during the Great Lakes Invitational.

It’s all part of the celebration in downtown Detroit that culminates with games between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings alumni Tuesday. And that also leads to the marquee event at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor — the Winter Classic matchup between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings on New Year’s Day.

All this, however, never would have happened if Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian didn’t push for the NHL to include Detroit in the Winter Classic. NHL officials wanted everything to take place in Ann Arbor.

But the Ilitch family wanted Detroit to benefit from the NHL’s showcase.

“This definitely would not be happening if not for Mr. I,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “This is the compromise or solution. Mr. Ilitch wanted two weeks of energy in Detroit.”

City gets a boost

The energy is definitely there.

And you can thank Mike Ilitch.

He could have given in to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and taken the festivities to Ann Arbor. But, Ilitch wanted to promote downtown Detroit.

“I think this is more about helping the city,” former Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli said. “I think it has been a big success. You see everybody down there excited to be a part of it.”

Teams from as far away as Alaska have skated on the Comerica Park rink. Normally, the Winter Classic doesn’t have two outdoor rinks. But this year, it was possible because two stadiums were used — Comerica Park and Michigan Stadium.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch wanted to bring the pulse of the city to Winterfest,” Holland said.

A second shot

Ken Daniels, play-by-play man for Red Wings games on Fox Sports Detroit, wasn’t at Friday’s GLI games. He’s in Florida for tonight’s game against the Panthers.

He will, however, be back in time to broadcast the alumni games Tuesday.

“If there was a blessing to the lockout (last year), which is hard to find, it is that the Red Wings got another crack at it and can do it even better,” Daniels said. “From the people I have spoken to down there they are all excited.”

And it’s Ilitch who helped bring that excitement to downtown Detroit.

Sure, the Red Wings winning Stanley Cups helps drive the excitement. And so does Ilitch’s other team, the Tigers.

But you put out a couple sheets of ice onto a baseball field, bring in a few bands and some fan-favorite hockey players, and suddenly, you’ve got a jumping downtown Detroit.

And the fun everyone will have this weekend can be traced to one man with a dream:

Mike Ilitch.

terry.foster@detroitnews.com
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