Krupa: Ilitch restored winged-wheel's luster

Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News

Detroit — On Saturday nights in the winter, in the years when Mike and Marian Ilitch were working in their first pizzeria in Garden City, I was a little kid on the Northwest side nurturing an obsession.


I have been thinking about how much his life affected mine, since his death Friday.

A lot of Detroiters have done the same.

Whether we followed the Red Wings or the Tigers, grabbed a pie, worked a summer job at Little Caesars, watched the kids skate a game for one of their youth hockey teams, or went to a show at the Fox, he had an impact.

For some it was ever so slight. For others, much more so. But for a multitude, Mike Ilitch mattered.

When I was four, staying up late on a Saturday night was something I could do only if I was good. Even then, mom was not entirely sold on the deal.

Unless fate intervened, I made sure I met the mark because it meant I could watch something I found absolutely fascinating.

The basement was almost dark, and I was scared to go down the stairs. But my big brother would come and get me, and we entered the world of hockey.

The pilot light of a gas heater danced, as it reflected on the linoleum floor, and the screen on the old black-and-white Admiral made sitting on my brother’s lap feel a like we were at a campfire.

And on that screen was the most spellbinding thing.

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On a broad white surface, made all the more pristine by the white boards at the perimeter, unfolded the most amazing sights, it seemed to me.

Brilliant speed, violence, skill, sticks raised in exultation, painful grimacing, men’s hair flying and goalies’ facial expressions as they stretched to the limit to make a save, or not. Announcers and retired players explaining the details of the sport.

I could not get enough.

How could you possibly consider being bad, if that was the reward?

And my oldest brother taught me about what seemed like the days of yore, when the Red Wings were the great team, and only managerial high jinks and the refs denied them of what their opponents could not, the Stanley Cup.

The last one had come just five years earlier, 16 months before my birth.

Hockey Night in Detroit

It would take some time to get the next one.

It came after I entered middle age and was living in another parts of the country, where the hockey was played by Bruins.

In the long interval, Howe, Sawchuk and Delvecchio continued to play and Lindsay made a comeback.

They got close to Cups, not so much because they were the best in the regular season, but because they were hell to play in the playoffs.

Just after that, things slipped.

And then, they got really nasty for a long time.

Enter Mike Ilitch, and with the ministrations of the somewhat more practical Mrs. Ilitch, as the story goes, stuff started happening like it does in fables.

The plot unfolded.

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They hired a wizard and drafted a handsome young prince. The wizard busied himself mixing potions and casting spells. The prince struggled against the fates and the enemies of the kingdom, was wounded in battle and captured.

Then he escaped, rallied his father’s troops and conquered — a few times.

Jim Devellano, Steve Yzerman and Mike Ilitch were like that in this town for 20 years — the wizard, the prince and the king.

And, with Scotty Bowman eventually in the role of royal counselor, it was captivating.

Ask any player from where the success proceeds and their explanation is succinct.


“The Ilitches.”

“Mr. and Mrs. I.”

Ilitch stands alone

It does not happen that way for everyone in every town. The sports landscape of the nation is littered with abject failures and, frankly, some complete jerks who own professional sports franchises.

Mike Ilitch was enormously successful with the Red Wings, and he earned the respect of fans, players, colleagues and scribes across North America. He also accomplished it with a sense that something enormously special was occurring.

Even allowing for my four-year-old inner child, it all felt a little magical.

“He was the rebirth,” his second successful general manager, Ken Holland, told me Friday, gracious in mourning.

The glorious accomplishments of the Red Wings were due to Ilitch’s passion, determination and leadership.

“He was an incredible owner,” Holland said.

“He was compassionate. He was committed. He was involved. He was focused. He had a vision. And he understood that sometimes you were going to take chances and maybe take risks, and those chances and risks paid off.

“He looked upon it as: When you were a Red Wing, you were part of his family. And certainly he had a relationship with a lot of the players.”

A hockey writer and broadcaster in another town said it well Friday.

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“After more than a half-century of covering hockey, I never met a more devoted, caring and smart NHL owner than Mike Ilitch,” tweeted Stan Fischler, of MSG in New York. “This is sad news.”

Only late in my career have I come to write about hockey, and I encounter the Ilitch effect, again, as part of my craft.

The tale has taken a turn most poignant.

Gordie Howe is gone. Now, Mike Ilitch, who restored the glory, is gone too, eight months to the day of Howe’s passing.

The team is in repose, starved for stars like Howe and Yzerman, and on tenterhooks about whether they have begun to emerge.

His new arena bears the name of two of his creations, the pizza company and the youth hockey program essential to the rise of Michigan natives in the NHL.

But the future is far from clear.

Whatever success emerges is Ilitch’s legacy. He was the rebirth.

Life teaches that great, powerful and rich men can sometimes tread heavily.

When it came to hockey, to be affected by Mike Ilitch felt like a parade.