DETROIT — On Friday night, thousands of people in Joe Louis Arena anxiously awaited the puck drop for the “Duel in the D,” between the Michigan hockey team and its bitter rivals, Michigan State.
The announcer introduced the players to a chorus of rousing cheers and boos as minutes remained before the opening faceoff in the storied hockey rink set up to be replaced by Little Caesars Arena.
Before the Spartan band began to play the national anthem, though, the announcer urged for a moment of silence.
Just hours before this special game, Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch passed away. The crowd of 17,720 stood in awe as they memorialized the Motor City icon.
For a few moments, both Wolverine and Spartan fans stood united together to commemorate a true hero. While minutes later the game would begin and aggressive checking and fighting would ensue, there was a sense of mutual respect. Members of both Michigan and Michigan State — especially those from the Great Lakes State — had a personal connection to the late Red Wings owner.
“It’s really sad,” said senior forward Max Shuart. “I honestly couldn’t believe it when I heard it. It seems like that guy’s timeless. He’s been around so long and I’m sure there’s a lot of heavy hearts in the Detroit community especially among the hockey players.”
According to Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon, he and his teammates expressed similar feelings of shock. Few of them even knew he was in the hospital, and because they found out just before the game, the Spartans quickly needed to refocus.
In a game that carried extra meaning for Lethemon and fellow Northville native Shuart, the latter saw an opportunity to honor the late Red Wings’ owner. The senior scored his second goal of the season Friday night, helping contribute to an eventual shootout victory for the Wolverines.
While the players reflected on time spent watching the Red Wings growing up, both Michigan State coach Tom Anastos and Michigan coach Red Berenson reflected on Ilitch’s work in growing the sport of college hockey.
They credited both his passion for the game and his support of the Wolverines and the Spartans. Berenson explained that Ilitch nearly singlehandedly spearheaded the annual “Duel in the D,” as well as the yearly Great Lakes Invitational competitions.
“(He supported it) whether it drew well or not,” Berenson said. “It wasn’t a moneymaker, it was doing the right thing for college hockey. Mike Ilitch and (his wife) Marian were so good for college hockey and Detroit.”
Added Anastos: “He’s been a huge advocate of the sport at all levels, whether it’s the NHL or youth hockey. He’s certainly a big advocate of college hockey. and one of the reasons we’ve been able to elevate college hockey to the profile it has today.”
For Berenson, though, it wasn’t an experience he had at Michigan that stood out to him the most about Ilitch, rather, he recalls moments spent with the owner and his family when he sought a coaching position for the Red Wings.
“I interviewed for the Red Wings job years ago,” Berenson said. “When I was cut from the St. Louis Blues, I spent the day with Ilitch and his family. What a first class group they were, and we always had a friendship after that. He had family that went to Michigan so he had some ties at Michigan, and he would call me from time to time and talk about hockey or talk about Michigan.”
Like Berenson, Anastos shared his own experiences with Ilitch. Despite Ilitch’s connections with Michigan— his daughter Denise has served as a Regent for the University since 2008— he found opportunities to connect with Michigan State as well.
“When I was with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (with Michigan State), we worked with the Ilitch family and I got to know Mr. Ilitch,” Anastos said. “… He invested his passion for the game. He loved the game, he loved his players, he loved his city and that was infectious toward anybody who was around him. I was very much moved by how passionate he was about all those things.”
Friday night served as the last time the two teams will play in Joe Louis Arena. And it is likely that this weekend will be the last game between the two this season.
There are few better ways to honor Ilitch than playing “in the Joe.”
According to Shuart at least, “it’s the house that Mike built.”