Mike Ilitch's legacy extends far beyond the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers

ByCRAIG CUSTANCE via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
February 13, 2017, 8:41 AM

&#151; -- DETROIT -- It has been a couple of days since the city lost one of its greatest ambassadors, and the signs of Detroiters mourning Mike Ilitch are sprinkled throughout the downtown area he rebuilt.

Some are in bright lights, such as the scoreboard at Comerica Park operating on a February afternoon, with a giant picture of Ilitch next to the words "A Life Well Lived."

The nearby marquee at The Fillmore includes a tribute that says, "Farewell to a Local Legend, a true Champion for Detroit."

Some of the tributes are smaller, more personal.

Next to the giant paw of one of the tiger statues outside Comerica Park, someone filled a plastic souvenir Detroit Tigers cup with purple, pink and yellow flowers.

But more noticeable than any sadness is the activity taking place on a gray Sunday afternoon in this expanding district that Ilitch revitalized.

The corner of Montcalm and Woodward is packed with parents and bundled-up toddlers rushing to Ilitch's Fox Theatre to catch a matinee performance of "Sesame Street Live." The televisions across the street at Ilitch's Hockeytown Caf? are tuned to cartoons, no doubt to satisfy the kids who stopped in for lunch before the show.

Up Woodward a couple blocks, remarkable progress is being made on Little Caesars Arena, the future home of the Detroit Red Wings. Giant cranes, not moving on a Sunday, surround what looks like a UFO nestled in a brick building.

That arena will end up being the final contribution Ilitch made to the Red Wings franchise, one he bought for $8 million in 1982, so there's a temptation to make that his legacy -- taking a franchise that needed to give away cars on a nightly basis to attract fans, to one that expects championships and will soon be pursuing those titles in a state-of-the-art home. He created Hockeytown, after all.

Even that huge accomplishment limits his vision.

"Everyone deserted downtown except for Mike Ilitch," said Hall of Famer Mark Howe, son of Detroit icon Gordie Howe. "I know what he did for the hockey club. The hockey club turned pretty successful after about eight years or so. He stuck it out in the city all those years and more. Honestly, for me, the last three years, I'm really starting to see the lifeblood of the city."

Howe, as part of that iconic hockey family, has a better perspective than most of what Ilitch meant to the sport and Detroit.

With his dad, Gordie, he'd drive downtown from their split-level home on Sunset Boulevard in Lathrup Village, taking the same route every time -- 12 Mile Road to Southfield Road, to the Lodge, to I-94, to Grand River -- to their destination, Olympia Stadium. The Old Red Barn.

He looked out the window of that car and watched a deteriorating city speed by.

"In the '60s and '70s, there was nothing," Howe said. "Everybody moved out. But Mr. Ilitch kept the Red Wings down there."

In 1992, Howe joined the Red Wings as a player. His route was a little different -- so was the arena -- but the scene on the drive in wasn't.

"Everything looked identical to what it did 20 years ago, if not worse," Howe said. "I never saw any future to this city."

Ilitch did.

The state of the Red Wings when Ilitch took over wasn't much better. Joe Louis Arena was built in 1979, but took years to properly finish. The large stairwells at the arena that take fans on a twisting journey from the top levels to the bottom in those early days doubled as urinals for fans without the patience to wait for inadequate bathroom space to open up.

When Ilitch took over operating control of the arena, he had to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into improvements for a facility that was just a couple years old, including massive painting projects and finishing touches, such as adding section numbers that were never originally finished.

Ilitch hired Jimmy Devellano from the New York Islanders to run hockey operations, and Devellano brought scout Neil Smith with him to help build the organization up from the bottom.

"I got there in August of '82, and the year before I had been scouting for the Islanders and going to Joe Louis Arena," Smith said. "It's two years old, and it's half empty. The Red Wings are being called the 'Dead Things.' I remember being in there before the sale [to Ilitch] and thinking, 'My God, this thing has gone off the rails.'"

When Ilitch bought the team, the Red Wings had missed the playoffs 14 of 16 years, a kind of ineptitude unheard of now in a city that has seen its hockey team make the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons -- the longest active streak in professional sports.

"What I noticed right from the start, as soon as he bought the team, he was hands-on," said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, a goalie for the Red Wings in that era. "You could see it right from the start, he was going to get that franchise turned around."

One early example of that came in Ilitch's approach to signing college free agents. He gave the financial green light for Red Wings management to sign all of them. Anything to increase the odds of winning.

"The league went out and put in the supplemental draft because of that," said current Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "He wanted to put hockey back on the map as quickly as possible."

He wanted to because he was passionate about the city, but also the sport. He was a die-hard hockey fan, a season-ticket holder before he was the owner. In the basement of his Hockeytown Caf?, hockey sweaters in glass line the walls, recognizing NHL players from the area who came up through the Little Caesars amateur hockey organization. Mike and Marian Ilitch started sponsoring local hockey teams in 1968, nearly 15 years before buying the Red Wings.

When a center who came up through the Detroit youth hockey programs moved to the top of the 1983 draft, Ilitch desperately wanted him. Pat LaFontaine appeared to be the perfect fit for a Detroit hockey franchise looking to return to glory, but the Islanders grabbed him at third overall in that draft.

So Ilitch and the Red Wings had to settle for a kid named Steve Yzerman at fourth overall.

"When Yzerman was drafted, that franchise changed," Rutherford said.

The change wasn't immediate, but the move that ultimately pushed the Red Wings to the top captured how dedicated and competitive Ilitch was as an owner.

In 1993, Ilitch decided he needed a new coach to finally win a Stanley Cup, so he narrowed his list down to two: Al Arbour and Scotty Bowman. Only two of the greatest coaches in any sport ever. That's how Ilitch's mind worked.

Mike and Marian Ilitch flew by private plane to Buffalo, where Bowman was deciding what to do next in his career. Ilitch picked up the entire Bowman family and flew them to Florida to the Ilitches' vacation home.

It didn't take long to sell Bowman.

"I knew right away just from talking to him," Bowman said. "He was hands-on, but always talking to you normally. There wasn't anything bureaucratic about him, always just a friendly conversation. He just said to call him in a couple days."

Bowman did just that. He called and accepted.

What made Ilitch a great owner was that he hired the right people -- guys such as Devellano, Bowman and Holland -- and allowed them to do their jobs. Even when he loved a player, as he did Keith Primeau, he ultimately trusted his hockey guys to make the right call.

When Primeau was holding out in 1996, Bowman called Ilitch to pitch the idea of a trade for Brendan Shanahan involving Primeau. Until then, Ilitch had made it pretty clear Primeau was untouchable.

The case from Bowman was simple. Primeau wasn't going to sign anytime soon, and Shanahan had everything the Red Wings needed. He was a power forward who could look after himself and his teammates.

Ilitch still wasn't crazy about the idea.

"He said, 'I'll trust you guys. Go ahead,'" Bowman said. "Shanahan put us over the top."

They won back-to-back Stanley Cups after acquiring Shanahan.

But perhaps what Bowman admired most about Ilitch was that he succeeded while always making family a priority for those who worked for him.

When Bowman agreed to coach the Red Wings, the understanding between him and Ilitch was that he'd spent the rest of his career with the Red Wings in some capacity. The greatest coach of all time was going to stop changing organizations.

But in 2008, Bowman's son Stan was working as an assistant general manager with the Chicago Blackhawks. Stan had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Scotty and his wife wanted to be closer to Stan in Chicago to help with the fight.

As he had done so many times with the Red Wings, he called Ilitch -- not only to get permission to leave, but to join the archrival Blackhawks.

It was a tough call to make.

"He said, 'You've got no decision, Scotty,'" Bowman said. "'You've got to help your son. We don't want to lose you, but if they've offered that chance to go with him, you're going to always regret it if you don't go.' That was the big thing I remember about him. He was always concerned about your family."

Ilitch's death comes at a time of transition for the Red Wings. Their playoff streak is in serious trouble this season. There are good young players on an aging roster, but not enough to remain among the league's elite.

There's a bit of a rebuild coming for the Red Wings, but Ilitch has left a culture of winning that isn't going anywhere. Neither is the progress he made in downtown Detroit.

A few years ago, Mark Howe was standing next to Ilitch in the owner's suite at Comerica Park, taking in a ballgame in the middle of the summer. The sun was setting, the lights came on and the scene was breathtaking as Howe looked at the city around him.

It was at that point Howe recognized the future Detroit now had, due in large part to Ilitch's vision. He turned to Ilitch to share his admiration.

"I never thought I'd see something like this in the city of Detroit," Howe said.

Ilitch didn't say anything back. He just smiled.

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