Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch was an icon many times over.
Ilitch liked – no, loved – to win. His competitive juices lived throughout his Little Caesers empire, through the Red Wings and Tigers and through his driving ambition of rebuilding his beloved Detroit.
A truly shrewd business man, he turned an $8 million investment in 1982 in the Red Wings into a billion dollar company. A decade later, he turned close to a $90 million purchase of the Detroit Tigers from arch rival Tom Monaghan (the owner of Domino’s pizza) into perhaps a $2 billion business. All the while trying to promote and develop the hollow streets of downtown Detroit.
In talking with many who knew Mr. Ilitch personally, the first traits discussed were his drive, his passion for baseball and hockey, and his truly competitive character. They talk about his vision in trying to grow the games and his desire to put winning teams on the ice and the field.
Through those tumultuous early years at Joe Louis Arena, Ilitch tried everything in order to fill the cavernous arena. Beyond signing free agents like Warren Young and Adam Oates, there was the nightly car giveaway, just to get fannies in the seats. Remember, the Wings were the laughing stock of the NHL, barely putting six or seven thousand people in the building in the early 1980’s. They weren’t the model franchise that exists now. The Wings were a skeleton of a franchise with a faint glow of a champion from 30 years prior.
He had no choice but to start from scratch. Ilitch hired Jimmy Devellano to rebuild the franchise, and tried absolutely everything to win. Remember it was Ilitch who supported missions through the Iron Curtain to get Sergei Fedorov and Petr Klima to try and improve the Red Wings’ roster. He would do anything to win.
There was the failed wooing of Mike Keenan to Detroit, and the successful one of Jacques Demers from St. Louis (with tampering charges to follow). He was always willing to spend on players to get better. He wanted the best for the players on every level. He truly believed they were an extension of the large Ilitch clan. Some suggest he cared almost too much for the players, to a fault. The players, to a man, knew he cared for them, and he wanted to win, not necessarily in that order. What Mike Ilitch instilled in all his people was pride.
On the hockey side they talk of the “Red Wing Way” – a desire to be the best, and create a collaborative atmosphere where everyone in the organization would win, and share in the glow of victory. That championship feeling extended from the janitor to the general manager, all working for the same goal, all pulling in the same direction.
For his investment and his belief, the Red Wings repaid Mike and his wife of 62 years, Marian, with Stanley Cup Championships in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Perhaps just as impressive is the 30 playoff appearances in the 33 seasons that Ilitch has owned the team, including 25 consecutive seasons. That mark is in jeopardy this season as the team re-tools.
Ilitch respected what sports meant in the city of Detroit. Both the Tigers and Red Wings have long, storied histories in the Motor City. He welcomed the greats of both teams from years past back into the sports empire. There was no better example of his commitment to the teams and their legends than last June at the funeral of Gordie Howe. Howe lay in state at the Joe, and the two-day celebration of his life occurred completely with Ilitch’s blessing. The message truly was that they were honouring not just the greatest hockey player in Red Wing history, but a member of the family.
And while the Tigers never won the World Series, Ilitch helped revitalize that brand as well. The Tigers were never afraid to spend, and have become a relevant long-term winner in the American League.
Prince Fielder, left, signed an enormous nine-year contract with the Tigers in 2012, indicating Ilitch’s willingness to go all-in
Beyond the professional sports landscape, there was he and his company’s commitment to minor hockey in Michigan. For decades now, Little Caesar’s is as synonomous with quality youth hockey as it is with pizza.
Travel teams in the familiar orange and blue became relevant at many hockey tournaments throughout North America, from the Quebec Pee Wee tournament to Calgary’s Mac’s Midget event. Ilitch’s promotion of minor hockey (along with Peter Karmanos’ Compuware and Honeybaked Hockey) cemented Detroit and Michigan on the whole as a true hockey hotbed, and a cornerstone contributor of today’s NHL players.
In recent years, his health hasn’t allowed him to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the sports entities; those responsibilities have fallen mostly to his son Chris. And it must be bittersweet, that a man who loved to compete and loved to win as much as Ilitch did, will not be around to see his vision of a new downtown arena open.
That will occur in October without him. The project has become such a driver of redevelopment of the city, as Ilitch knew it would. And as proud as he was of the new arena, he took as much pride in knowing his Red Wings made 25 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A record that remains intact at his passing.
Mike Ilitch. Retail icon. Sports icon. Detroit icon.