COLUMBUS - It's going to be an emotional game for the Red Wings, especially for coach Jeff Blashill and the players who knew owner Mike Ilitch the best.
Ilitch passed away Friday at the age of 87.
"I can tell you as a young kid growing up, the impact that Mr. Ilitch had on youth hockey in the state of Michigan," Blashill said after offering his condolences to the Ilitch family. "I was a youth hockey player in the state of Michigan, Little Caesars was the crown jewel of youth hockey for the entirety of my youth and still is in a lot of cases today. The impact that he had on hockey in the U.S. and certainly hockey in the state of Michigan to make Michigan one of the best states in hockey, I think is incredible."
Blashill said Ilitch's impact went far beyond hockey.
"I think lots has been probably talked about, the impact he's had on the city of Detroit," Blashill said. "Obviously back in the '80s, moving the Little Caesars headquarters downtown all the way through to now where I went on a date with my wife in downtown Detroit in August and Detroit's hopping. There's other people that have had impact but none larger than Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch. So he'll leave a legacy in this state in so many different areas."
Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said he and his teammates felt like they were part of Ilitch's family.
"One thing after my back surgery, after the Olympics, next day when I woke up he was one of the first who called in to see how I was, how the surgery went," Zetterberg said. "I was in New York at that time. That felt very special."
Zetterberg was forced to withdraw from the Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014.
"I remember when my ACL blew up in 2006, I didn't speak to him directly but the training staff said how he called in and asked how things were moving along and how he called Hank (Zetterberg) after his back surgery, things like that," Niklas Kronwall said. "You don't hear other owners doing that, you don't necessarily hear people higher up in management doing that. He was a very special man for this organization and for the city of Detroit, big time."
But it wasn't just when players were injured that they heard directly from Ilitch.
"The one time I did actually was in the summertime after we had won the Cup in '07-08," Justin Abdelkader said. "I was back taking classes at Michigan State and I was traveling back to Muskegon from East Lansing, got a call from him and he just wanted to congratulate me on being a part of that Stanley Cup championship team. He said just as important was it was important for me to finish my degree. I'll never forget that. He said, 'That's something no one can every take away from you and you've come so far and put so much work into it.'"
Abdelkader said he was surprised to hear from Ilitch as he had only been with the team a few months.
"It was really special," Abdelkader said. "I think that's just the message you got from all the players that have played for him, whether it's with the Red Wings or the Tigers, how loyal he is to his players, how much he wants to win at all costs. It doesn't matter. The team he put together in 2002, one of the best teams ever assembled showed how bad he wanted to win and that was after two previous Cups. Just a special, special owner and very fortunate to play for him."
Kronwall said even though Ilitch was the owner and had so much success and had that aura, he was also a regular guy.
"All the players, obviously, knowing that he's your owner, he brings that with him, but at the same time, when you started talking to him, you felt he could be your neighbor and that's the feeling you got," Kronwall said. "It really felt like he cared about everybody and wanted to make everyone feel very welcome."
Blashill and Abdelkader are from Michigan and have seen first-hand what he accomplished in the city and state.
"There's other people that have had impact but none larger than Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch," Blashill said. "So he'll leave a legacy in this state in so many different areas. When I took the job, I felt like I was going to work for the best ownership in sports. That's certainly played out to be true. It's certainly a big loss but certainly the impact that Mr. Ilitch had on so many different areas in the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit, I can't imagine many people having a bigger impact."
Condolences have poured in from the hockey world, from Major League Baseball and from current and former players and coaches.
When the Red Wings play the Columbus Blue Jackets today at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets plan a moment of silence before the game for Ilitch, as several other teams did earlier today.
"I think everybody knows the magnitude of his day and this game," Zetterberg said. "Everyone knows what he's done for us. It will be a special night tonight for everyone involved."
KRONWALL, NIELSEN READY: Blashill said both defenseman Niklas Kronwall (lower-body) and center Frans Nielsen (shoulder) are available to play against the Blue Jackets.
Both have missed the last three games.
Kronwall will replace Jonathan Ericsson, who is scheduled to undergo wrist surgery next week.