Winter Classic perfect chance to cheer Detroit icon Mike Ilitch

Mike Ilitch purchased the Red Wings in 1982 and the Tigers in 1992.

Paul Sancya/AP

On New Year’s Day, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather at America’s largest football stadium to watch a hockey game. It will be a spectacle, because of the setting (Michigan Stadium), the ancient rivals (the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs), the prospect of a world-record crowd, the sheer curiosity in the sports version of a hey-wouldn’t-this-be-cool 1 a.m. barstool conversation coming to fruition.

The event is many things: a marketing bonanza for the NHL, a hockey diversion on a football day, a Snow Bowl quagmire if it turns out that Mother Nature is an Ohio State fan. But the Winter Classic also is the latest triumph for one of the greatest American sports owners of all time.

Without Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings would not have won the Stanley Cup four times since 1997 while building the longest active streak of postseason appearances (22 years) in major North American professional sports. Without Mike Ilitch, the Tigers would not boast a large-market payroll while accounting for three MVPs, two Cy Young awards and one World Series appearance in the past three years.

Without Mike Ilitch, Detroit (and, in this case, Ann Arbor) would not have the cachet to host a marquee event like the Winter Classic.

"Without a doubt," affirmed Ken Holland, the Red Wings general manager, after his team’s Tuesday practice at Michigan Stadium. "The league approached us and wanted to know if we were interested. Our first thought was we wanted to host the game [in Detroit] at Comerica Park. The league wanted to host it here. Mr. Ilitch is committed to the city of Detroit. He wanted the activity to be in downtown Detroit.

"Ultimately the solution was the one we put together. It’s a great solution. The league built us a rink at Comerica Park. We’ve had a week of games there for high-school teams and college teams and mini-mite teams and the OHL. It’s been a pretty special two weeks. … [New Year’s Day] is going to be the grand-daddy of it all.

That sentence applies to many developments in Detroit over the past few decades – from the downtown revitalization to the city’s relevancy on the international sports scene. Imagine how it would look without him, in a George Bailey sort of hypothetical: The Lions’ half-century of ineptitude – one playoff victory since 1957 – just claimed its latest coaching casualty. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since 2008.

But Ilitch – through his teams, his wallet, his infatuation with winning – has sustained Detroit as a destination for hockey and baseball players yearning for championships. Within his sports empire, Ilitch has rendered almost irrelevant the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

NINE TIMES SPORTS FIGURES BLEW UP ON MEDIA

The Red Wings have held such an exalted stature for years; Daniel Alfredsson, who spent 17 seasons in Ottawa before signing with Detroit, is only the most recent example of a late-career NHL free agent drawn to Detroit. But now it’s also true of the Tigers, who have hosted happy news conferences for Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan in successive winters.

Yes, the players are well-compensated. No, they don’t come to address the pensions of city workers. But Michigan natives rarely hear outsiders say – with complete sincerity – that they want to come to Detroit. When that happens, it resonates. And now is commonplace, in the highly visible domain of professional sports.

For a man of almost unimaginable wealth – his family’s net worth is estimated at $3.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine – this restoration of civic confidence will constitute one of Ilitch’s greatest legacies.

In saying that, however, we have broached one of the most uncomfortable subjects in Michigan today: Mike Ilitch is 84. He cannot own the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers forever, and it is uncertain what will happen when that is no longer the case.

In July 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported that Jerry Reinsdorf – like Ilitch, a two-sport, title-winning icon – has "strongly suggested" that his family sell the White Sox while retaining control of the Bulls after he dies. Neither the Ilitch family nor its representatives speak publicly with any degree of candor about succession plans for the Red Wings and Tigers.

While Ilitch has been reserved with the media for years, his attendance at major Tigers announcements has become less frequent as his age has advanced. Amid the wild anticipation for the Winter Classic, it’s important to acknowledge that such events will be harder for Detroit and Michigan to host once Ilitch’s influence is gone.

Of the two, the Red Wings’ future seems more secure. It is cheaper to operate an NHL franchise than an MLB franchise, and the Ilitch family has secured public funding for a new hockey arena. The Tigers, meanwhile, seem wholly dedicated to the mission of winning a World Series during Ilitch’s lifetime.

When Jim Leyland retired as Tigers manager in October after reaching the postseason four times in eight years, his greatest lament was not winning a World Series championship for Ilitch. “I’ve never socialized with Mr. Ilitch,” Leyland said then. “He never one time called down and jumped on me about who to play or what to do with the lineup. He never complained one time. I could never have asked for a better owner than Mike Ilitch. It just doesn’t happen.”

love the man. Part of that is because he’s turned some of them into millionaires. But the driven, Type-A personalities are drawn to him because he gets it in a way that many owners do not. Mike Ilitch understands that, even though money cannot buy titles, it creates the expectation of winning. That is his way of demanding accountability from highly talented people. After that, he usually leaves them alone.

The results are self-evident.

"He’s a serial winner," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told me recently. "What I mean by that, when he touches something, it turns to gold. When he makes a commitment to something, he finds a way. I don’t know if it’s his work ethic, his drive, his business sense. And when I talk about him, I should be talking about Mr. and Mrs. [Marian Ilitch] and Chris [their son, the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings]. Their commitment here is fantastic. Without that, Detroit isn’t on the upswing like it is right now. I know I’ve been here now for nine years. Their commitment to this community is like nothing I’ve seen.

"When you look at what Mr. Ilitch has done with the Tigers – the Red Wings came along first that way – he’s really got the Tigers going. In any system, he tries to find a way. His commitment to excellence himself is why there’s a commitment to excellence in each franchise. This doesn’t happen by accident. It’s leadership from the top. The expectation level of Mr. and Mrs. I and Chris is that you deliver. They bring it every day. They expect you to do the same. I think it’s fantastic.

… When he touches something, it turns to gold.

"We have a slogan in our locker room: To whom much is given, much is expected. That, to me, is reality. They give you the opportunity. Now deliver."

To that end, the Detroit Red Wings are about to play an important hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference. Come spring, these two points could account for the difference between making the playoffs and heading to the lake.

The best part about it? Although Ilitch doesn’t attend every home game for his teams any longer, Holland said he’s expected to be at this one. That is fitting. Necessary, really. The event that could not have happened without Mike Ilitch should not happen without Mike Ilitch.