Sports owners usually aren’t fan favorites. Most fans perceive them to be “business first”, not caring enough about the product on the field/court/ice. However, for the city of Detroit, they knew of an owner who was much different. He was an owner who poured his heart into the city, and gave back to it as much as it gave to him.
Mike Ilitch was the owner of the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings and Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers. He was also the founder of Little Caesars Pizza, but most importantly, Ilitch was an icon to the city of Detroit.
Ilitch, a Detroit native, bought the Red Wings in 1982 after years of futility. He immediately sought to improve the team. With his management, leadership and passion, the Red Wings became one of the NHL’s most dominant teams. They made the Stanley Cup Finals three times in the 90s, winning it all in 1997 and 1998. They were the last team to successfully defend their Stanley Cup Championship until the Pittsburgh Penguins went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.
A great example of Ilitch’s commitment to winning would be the 2000-01 NHL offseason. After being upset by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs, Ilitch and general manager Ken Holland set out to make sure there wouldn’t be a repeat offense. They traded for future Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek and brought in fellow future Hall members Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Hull would pair with Pavel Datsyuk, and later Henrik Zetterberg, to form the “Two Kids and an Old Goat” line.
These acquisitions, along with their already-loaded roster consisting of Steve Yzerman, Niklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov, and Brendan Shanahan, propelled the Wings to the Cup in 2002. The infamous words of Gary Bettman still ring true today. “When you look at these great players,” Bettman said before presenting the Cup, “the first reaction is ‘Let’s give them the keys to the Hall of Fame.'” This Red Wings team had ten Hall of Famers and a Hall of Fame coach in Scotty Bowman. The Wings added one more Cup in 2008.
In 1992, while the Wings were beginning their accent to the top of the NHL, Ilitch made another move. He bought the Detroit Tigers, and again, sought to improve. The Tigers didn’t emulate the success of the Red Wings, recording losing seasons in twelve of their first thirteen seasons under Ilitch’s ownership. This includes the 43-119 2003 season that tied the record for most losses by an American League team in the modern era. The major league record for losses is currently held by the 1920 Cleveland Spiders (120).
The 2006 season can be described as magic. The team surprised everyone and won the American League Wild Card. If that wasn’t enough, they upset the heavily favored New York Yankees in the ALDS. They then swept the Oakland Athletics in the ALCS to march into the World Series.
Although they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Ilitch and the Tigers were able to provide the city hope when it needed it the most. Ilitch would do this again in 2012, when he surprised the baseball world by signing first baseman Prince Fielder, the top free agent at the time. The team once again made it to the World Series, but lost to the San Francisco Giants.
Ilitch’s presence with the Tigers drove the team to attempt to win now instead of commencing a rebuild, which it seemed they badly needed. The Tigers signed Justin Upton in 2016 and went from last place in the AL Central to missing the AL Wild Card by just two games.
Mr. I wasn’t able to see the 2017 season. He passed away one year ago today, February 10th, 2017.
His impact went far beyond sports. Ilitch was a prominent member in the community, and his Little Caesars restaurants helped revitalize the city from their inception in 1967. In an even more telling anecdote, Ilitch financially supported civil rights figure Rosa Parks while she lived in Detroit.
Mr. I was more than just a sports owner or a pizza magnate, he was a native of Detroit. His passion and unwavering dedication to the city lived vicariously through his work with the Red Wings, Tigers, Little Caesars, and his other small business ventures. There aren’t enough words to describe what he meant to Detroit, its people, and its fans. One thing is certain, however.
There will never be another one quite like Mike Ilitch.
Photo Credit: RYAN GARZA, DETROIT FREE PRESS