When I first heard that Mike Ilitch had died, I wasn’t sure how to react. Throughout my 27 years of life, I’ve spent maybe a month or two total in the Detroit area. Sure I’m a Red Wings and Tigers fan, but I was a late bloomer and haven’t known the teams when they were bad. I’ve seen outpourings of poignant statements from all the people Mike Ilitch has touched, and wasn’t sure what I could possibly add as I haven’t grown up surrounded by his legacy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much I owe to Mr. Ilitch, so I wanted to take a little time to say thanks and share another perspective on his impact. The impact he had on this out-of-towner.
I’m a lifelong resident of enemy territory. Growing up, I was a Detroit fan because of my dad, but didn’t have any way to access the games. When I went to college, it was the first time I had good internet and could listen to the radio feed of every Wings game. That’s when the Red Wings truly became my team, not because of a family inheritance, but because they were in my heart and little winged wheels were running through my veins. I wanted to know everything about them and find a community where I could make myself at home.
Would I have bothered if Mike Ilitch had never propelled the team out of the “Dead Wings” era? It’s hard to say. Nobody in my Pennsylvania hometown knew anything about the Penguins until 2009 (and yes I’m still bitter). Nobody in my college town cared about the Bruins until they were making a Cup run. Nobody in my current town paid attention to the Capitals until maybe ten years ago, and that’s being generous. When I go to a Wings game here in D.C., the Caps jerseys are 99% in the newest style and probably 40% Ovechkin.
At Wings games you not only see a huge diversity in jerseys, but the average knowledge level of even the most casual fan is impressive, and that’s because there is so much to be proud of. Mr. Ilitch made the question “who is your favorite Wings player?” a difficult one to answer, because there are so many outstanding choices thanks to his desire to not only to bring champions to Detroit, but to get them to stay there. Because of his unwavering commitment to greatness, I can always hold my head up high knowing that no matter how much taunting I have to endure from the local fans, I can respond with a smirk knowing their teams can only dream about having a history like ours.
If you’ve been to an away game, then you know how well Red Wings fans travel. It may not make the broadcast, but I can personally say that I’ve never gone to a Wings game in D.C. that hasn’t had at least one rowdy Let’s Go Red Wings chant echo around the upper deck. Walking around the city on gameday, I see Red Wings jerseys in all different styles celebrating dozens of different players. There is no uniformity to be had, because there are so many great players to honor and so many seasons worth remembering, whether you’ve been a fan for one year or one hundred years.
So, thank you Mr. Ilitch for rescuing the team that I am so proud of. Thank you for making it such an honor to represent the Winged Wheel for all of us fans scattered across the globe. Thank you for the team that has brought me so many great friends, that has carried me through my darkest days, and that has given me so many fond memories to cherish. The team that has inspired me to be creative, to step outside my comfort zone and put my pen to paper, that has launched thousands of terrible tweets. The Red Wings are a huge part of my identity, and it all started with one man’s love for a team and a city.
You can add me to the long list of people impacted by Mike Ilitch’s generosity, passion, and love for the game. I’ve never called Detroit home, but I would be proud to be a resident of the city Mr. Ilitch believed in. For now, I will settle for cheering on his teams from afar and remembering that above all else, he was a fan just like us.
So if you’re lucky enough to go to another Red Wings game this season, make your Let’s Go Red Wings chant a little louder for me in honor of Detroit’s number one fan, Mike Ilitch.