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Red Wings players remember owner Mike Ilitch

Before facing Blue Jackets, 'Everyone knows the magnitude of this day'

by Craig Merz / Correspondent

COLUMBUS -- Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who died Friday at 87, was described as a a great man and a visionary by members of the Red Wings before a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday.

When they spoke, it was not just about his hockey team that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008 under his ownership that began in 1982.

Video: Nick Cotsonika on the legacy of Mike Ilitch

Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who has been in the organization since being selected with the 210th pick in the 1999 NHL Draft, recalled how Ilitch took time to call him immediately after he had back surgery to check how he was doing.

"He was a great owner," Zetterberg said. "The things he had done for the team, for the Red Wings, for the players show how dedicated he was to his players and also the players' families. He really cared about everyone. He will be dearly missed."

The Red Wings did not have a special patch to honor Ilitch for the game Saturday, but none was needed, Zetterberg said.

"Everyone knows the magnitude of this day and of this game," the forward said. "Everyone knows what he's done for us. It will be a special night for everyone involved."

Niklas Kronwall will always remember Ilitch visiting the locker room before the season started.

"He shook everyone's hands and wished them good luck," the defenseman said. "He certainly was respected in every way he conducted himself. No matter where he went he was always a very respectful man.

"All the players know that he's your owner, he brings that with him, but at the same time talking to him you felt he could be your neighbor."

Justin Abdelkader grew up in Muskegon, Michigan and went to Michigan State, so he knows the Ilitch impact made in sports and business.

"When everyone was moving out, he was kind of moving in and investing in Detroit," the forward said. "He had such a great vision of what it could be. It's amazing to see the transformation."

Abdelkader had a personal remembrance as well.

"In the summertime after he won the cup in '07-08, I was back taking classes at Michigan State and I was traveling to Muskegon and I got a call from him," he said. "He wanted to congratulate me on being a part of the Stanley Cup championship team, but just as importantly to me was to finish that degree. I'll never forget that. He said that's something no one can take away from you and you've come so far and put in so much work."

They also recalled the mark the Little Caesars founder left on youth hockey in Michigan and the way he believed in the city of Detroit when others were fleeing.

"As a young kid growing up, I can tell you the impact Mr. Ilitch had on youth hockey players in the state of Michigan," said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who was born in Detroit and raised in Sault Ste. Marie. "Little Caesars (Amateur Hockey Program) was the crown jewel of youth hockey the entirety of my youth. It still is today.

"The impact he had on hockey in the U.S. and certainly hockey in Michigan to make Michigan one of the best states in hockey, I think is incredible.

Video: FLA@NSH: Detroit pays tribute to the late Mike Ilitch

"Lots has been talked about the impact he's had on the city of Detroit. Obviously back in the '80s, moving the Little Caesars headquarters downtown to moving all the way to now; I went on a date with my wife in downtown Detroit in August and Detroit's hoppin.' It's hoppin' because of other people, but none are larger than Mr. Ilitch. He'll leave a legacy in this state in so many different areas."

Abdelkader said Ilitch's passion for life was unmatched.

"He wanted to win. It wasn't about the business side or making that extra dollar," Abdelkader said. "It was about winning, not only for our organization, but for the city of Detroit and for the state of Michigan.

"For all the Red Wings fans, he made a lot of people in Michigan proud to be from Michigan, which when he bought the Red Wings they were labeled as the 'Dead Wings.' He gave everyone a sense of pride and uplifted everyone and obviously uplifted the city of Detroit when he changed the vision of what people had originally seen."

Blashill said it was a privilege knowing Ilitch.

"The amount of respect for the Ilitch family in our organization is incredible. We all know we work and play for, we think, the best owner not only in the NHL but sports," Blashill said. "We wanted to win for that family prior to yesterday but certainly you want to do it to that Nth degree more now."

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