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Hockeytown's civic treasure

Detroit's Ilitch just winged it

TORONTO -- It only takes 3-4 hours to drive to Hockeytown from here, estimated time of arrival depending on what kind of traffic bottles up the tunnel from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit. Long-suffering Maple Leaf fans, who like to think their NHL darlings actually are Canada's team, at times must calculate that relatively short trek as a way of exchanging their nationality and ending 36-plus years of Stanley Cup futility. Among the Original Six franchises, none has had it better the last decade-plus than the Winged Wheels. Hockey is hot in Detroit. The Red Wings have finished with 100 points or more in eight of the last 11 seasons and they've won three Cups since the spring of 1997.

But it wasn't always so good.

"There were nights we looked around and there were only 5,000 people in the stands," recalled Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who yesterday was formally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, along with fellow builder Brian Kilrea (Ottawa 67s coach) and players Grant Fuhr and Pat LaFontaine. "You get desperate. I mean, we had to wonder, `How do we get people in the stands?' "

For $8 million and a barrel full of new-owner naivete, Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982 from the Norris family, longtime patriarchs of the sport in Michigan. The Norrises decided that a season-ticket base of about 2,100, a losing record longer than the Detroit River, and a championship drought dating back to 1955 all added up to just about enough of a good thing to say goodbye.

"They told us there were 4,500 season tickets," recalled the 74-year-old Ilitch, a light touch of irony in his voice. "Guess they came up a little short on that."

His fortune built on the pizza business (Little Caesars) and his passion for the sport founded on youth hockey, which he helped flourish around Detroit, Ilitch went about reconstructing the Dead Wings.

With no one in the stands, and no-names in the lineup, Ilitch turned to his general manager, Jim Devellano, for the quick-fix answers. Salaries, by comparison with today's $1.8 million average, were laughably low -- a very good wage then about one-10th of the current average.

But there was no true free agency, which meant roster makeovers had to be accomplished by trade (difficult with so few assets in the lineup) or sprinkling in has-beens and coulda-beens, all the while hoping that amateur scouts could deliver vital talent via the draft.

What were they to do?

" `Here's what we have to do, M.I.,' " Ilitch recalled Devellano telling him. " `We have to bring in some colorful people.' "

Colorful meant, for starters, Ron Duguay.

"He's handsome," Devellano told Ilitch, this in the era just before the NHL insisted that everyone, right down to the guy who gasses the Zamboni, wear a helmet. "He's got this long hair and it flows in the wind when he skates. The women will like him."

The Dead Wings were just beginning to liven up, and not just on the ice. Budd Lynch, longtime Red Wings broadcaster and Hall of Fame media honoree, recalled yesterday that the franchise's dark days included rich promotions. A lucky fan on the right promo night could even leave with a new car.

The same summer ('83) Duguay came aboard from the Rangers, the Red Wings also plucked the fearless Bob Probert out of the June amateur draft. The strapping 6-foot-3-inch winger could fight. As a member of the Brantford Alexanders, he was pounding his way through the Ontario Hockey League. Devellano was eager to draft him, but Ilitch, through his buddies in youth and junior hockey, was hearing that Probert might not be able to get his skating up to NHL standards.

"But Jimmy told me, `Don't worry, M.I.,' " said Ilitch, " `he'll take care of it with his dukes.' "

Very few in hockey could match Probert's legendary punches. For years, he was the game's Godzilla. Taken 46th by the Red Wings in that '83 draft, he amassed 398 penalty minutes in one season (1987-88). Prior to moving on to the Blackhawks, Probert hit some rough spots in his career, including a drug conviction that led to jail time. Lamenting a battered and bruised lineup one night when the Wings were about to face the Bruins in Detroit later in the '80s, a beleaguered Devellano turned to a longtime Boston acquaintance and lamented, "Half my team's in the hospital -- and the other half's in jail."

A couple of seasons went by, and Team USA's miracle at Lake Placid in 1980 was convincing more and more owners, GMs, and scouts that US college players could play in the NHL. Ilitch turned again to Devellano and asked in the spring of '85 if there were some college players to sign.

"Yeah, there are 10 of 'em, M.I.," said Devellano.

"Well," said Ilitch, "then sign all of 'em."

Luckily, recalled Ilitch, one of the college players brought aboard was RPI's Adam Oates, who turned into one of the game's consummate set-up specialists.

"After that," said Ilitch, "they [the NHL] patched the rule up."

Ultimately, though, it was the draft that paid off the biggest for Ilitch and his Wings in the person of Steve Yzerman, who remains on active duty in his sure-shot Hall of Fame career. The fourth pick in the '83 draft -- behind Brian Lawton (Minnesota), Sylvain Turgeon (Hartford), and LaFontaine (Islanders) -- Yzerman is now in his 21st Red Wing season. His name is on all three of Detroit's Ilitch-era Cups, and he began this season with a career 1,670 points. Yzerman, the skilled and prolific pivot, was every part the rebirth of the lineup that Ilitch was to the front office.

Mike and Marian Ilitch remain the familial heads of the Red Wings, but children Christopher and Denise are increasingly involved these days in all things Hockeytown. Their father bought in at a cheap price, was never timid when it came time to writing checks for top talent (including legendary coach Scott Bowman), and in a game that often does not reward spending, there is no disputing that he got bang for his buck.

"As a rookie owner," said Ilitch, the Hall of Fame's blue jacket fit comfortably around him, "you expect you're going to do great -- but it takes time."

For 42 years after that Stanley Cup in 1955, time was all Hockeytown had. If not for Ilitch, maybe that's all it would have had.

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