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Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski, who played for Little Caesars hockey, talks absolutely the passing of Mike Ilitch and why the youth program was so important to him. Video by George Sipple/DFP
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Kris Draper witnessed the commitment Mike Ilitch made to hockey in Detroit from different perspectives. Draper was part of four Stanley Cup titles as a player, then moved to the front office, where he serves as an adviser to Wings general manager Ken Holland. Draper is also a bantam major hockey coach for Little Caesars amateur hockey, the youth program Ilitch started in 1968, long before he ever owned a pro sports team.

Draper said there are thousands of men and women who came through Little Caesars hockey and reflected this weekend on how much Ilitch impacted their life. Ilitch died Friday at age 87.

“You look at the opportunity that guys like Zach Werenski, Mike Modano, Bryan Rolston had,” Draper said. “The way they were treated obviously impacted those guys.

“They’ve touched people at all levels – lawyers, doctors, fireman, police officers, teachers. So many people came through the ranks of Little Caesars hockey. You look at the highest level, but it all starts with Little Caesars amateur hockey. I’m sure there are thousands who have stories about Mike and Marian Ilitch and the Ilitch family.

“It started with a pizza shop, one store, and they built it into an empire.”

Remembering Mike Ilitch

Draper said Holland called him with the news on Friday and he relayed the news to his youth team.

“They realize how fortunate we are to wear the baby blue and orange colors,” Draper said. “The kids, they get it.”

Draper understands, too, how fortunate he was to play for an owner like Ilitch in the NHL.

“Everything he’s accomplished, it’s a celebration of his life,” Draper said. “You feel for Mrs. Ilitch. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I saw Mrs. Ilitch, I saw Mr. Ilitch. They were together. Companion for life, and that’s something that resonates with everybody, the way they were.

“It was just overwhelming, the commitment year in and year out,” Draper said. “You look at the teams we had through the late ‘90s and 2000s and you didn’t see too many people that wanted to leave the Red Wings organization.

“The summer of ’01, we trade for Dominik Hasek, we sign Brett Hull, we sign Luc Robitaille. You’re like, holy … With that comes a sense of responsibility. We felt we had one of the greatest teams ever assembled on paper. But if we didn’t win the Stanley Cup, there wouldn’t be too many people talking about the ‘02 team like they do. There was a lot of pressure on that team. Mr. Ilitch made a massive financial commitment to that team. For me, the greatest thing I was part of was when Stevie Y got the Cup and was able to pass it to Mr. Ilitch. You never forget those moments.

“We won four Stanley Cups. You can talk about the coaches or the players, but in the end this is Mr. Ilitch’s hockey team. We won Stanley Cups on his hockey team. That’s something that is very special for all of us.”’

Fellow NHL owner Peter Karmanos Jr., helped build the Compuware youth hockey program into another strong program in the state of Michigan, but credited Ilitch’s Little Caesars program as a program that pushed others to be better. “Caesars was going on when we built ours, and a lot of it was tailored after that,” Karmanos told the Free Press in a 2015 interview.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski and Shiann Darkangelo, a forward with the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League, are among the countless number of former Little Caesars hockey players who went on to play professional hockey.

Werenski said he was at dinner with Red Wings forward and former U-M teammate Dylan Larkin on Friday night when he heard that Ilitch had died. 

Werenski said he never met Ilitch, but playing for the amateur hockey organization he started meant a lot to him. Werenski said at some tournaments the Little Caesars teams wore uniforms similar to the Wings.

“You felt like you were a Red Wing,” Werenski said. “It’s all cause of him. It makes you dream a little bit bigger. You want to be a Red Wing or you want to play in the NHL. He did that for a lot of people, a lot of kids. Definitely did that for me.”

Darkangelo played for Little Caesars 16-and-under and 19-and-under hockey teams a decade ago.

“Everything was always organized,” Darkangelo recalled during a phone interview with the Free Press this afternoon. Darkangelo is in Pittsburgh for the NWHL All-Star Game.

She said Little Caesars teams she played on played games out of the now closed City Ice Arena.

“We had our own locker rooms,” she said. “Pretty similar to college. We had lockers. We could leave our stuff. That was cool.”

Darkangelo said playing for Little Caesars hockey “set me up to where I am now.”

Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who played college hockey at Ferris State, said Little Caesars hockey was considered the “crown jewel of youth hockey for the entirety of 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. “I think lots has been probably talked about, the impact he’s had on the city of Detroit. 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.”