When Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch bought the Detroit Red Wings in 1982, the organization hadn’t seen much recent success
They made the playoffs twice in the 1970s and hadn’t gotten into the postseason since 1978 by the time of Ilitch’s purchase of the club. But during Ilitch’s time as team owner, the Red Wings quickly turned themselves into the NHL’s gold standard, winning four Stanley Cups and making the playoffs 25 straight seasons by the time of Ilitch’s death Friday at the age of 87. Ilitch also owned MLB’s Detroit Tigers and bought that team in 1992.
Wrote the Detroit Free Press on Ilitch’s Red Wings legacy and how some of the early moves he made helped lay the groundwork for franchise stability:
In 1982, he bought the Red Wings. It was a bargain: Ilitch didn’t put up a penny of the $8 million price. Instead, he gave longtime owner Bruce Norris a $1 million down payment from season ticket sales collected after the agreement was signed.
Rebuilding the woebegone Wings took several years. Ilitch spent millions and was patient as General Manager Jimmy Devellano and Jim Lites, Ilitch’s former son-in-law, built through the draft and by sneaking players out of communist countries.
The reincarnation of the Red Wings started with the drafting of future franchise icon Steve Yzerman in 1983 and the talent flow continued throughout the rest of the decade, especially in 1989 when the team picked future Hockey Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Federov. Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, who helped the Wings to the 1997 Stanley Cup but saw his career cut short by a tragic car accident shortly after, was also drafted by Detroit that year.
Other home grown stars by the Red Wings who helped them to championship success dring Ilitch’s ownership included Slava Kozlov, Martin Lapointe, Chris Osgood, Darren McCarty, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
When the team needed Ilitch to open up his wallet for high-priced veterans, he did so, which was imperative to stay competitive in the days before the salary cap. In 1996, the Red Wings traded for winger Brendan Shanahan, who quickly became a core member on their dynasty teams. They rescued defenseman Larry Murphy from the Toronto Maple Leafs later that season and he turned into a steady member of their blue line. In 1999, Detroit added defenseman Chris Chelios to their lineup via trade. Goaltender Dominik Hasek (trade) and wingers Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull (free agency) were all added for the 2001-02 season.
Ilitch also matched the Carolina Hurricanes front-loaded offer sheet in 1998 to keep Fedorov, and eventually paid the center $28 million for four months of work that year, which ended in a championship.
The Red Wings had a payroll of $78 million in 2001-02, over twice the NHL average of $38 million.
The Red Wings won Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008 and are still the last organization in the league to repeat. Before Ilitch’s tenure as owner they hadn’t won a Cup since 1954-55. Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. The most recent Forbes valuation listed them at $625 million – the eighth highest in the NHL.
“Mr. I stands as one of America’s greatest sports team owners,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said in a statement provided by the team. “To have been able to work with him for more than 30 years and be a part of turning a struggling franchise into a champion again was an experience of a lifetime. His commitment to his team and our fans, is the reason we all feel a part of “Hockeytown”. He will be deeply missed by those of us who were fortunate enough to know him and call him a friend.”
Ilitch’s hockey contributions weren’t limited to the NHL. Little Caesars has been sponsoring amateur hockey teams since 1968 and the Little Caesars AAA team is one of the best-known clubs for youngsters in the United States. Alumni include Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano along with Doug Weight, John Vanbiesbrouck and Derian Hatcher along with many others who carved out NHL careers.
“He was a great man that did so much for the city of Detroit and for kids that grew up watching and loving hockey,” said Detroit area native and former Red Wing David Legwand, who also played with Little Caesars as a youth. “He loved being around the game and the game and did whatever he could to make everyone a better player and person. He will be missed a ton by the whole community both hockey and baseball
People in hockey who were not affiliated with the Red Wings also held Ilitch in high esteem. He was an important voice amongst owners and one the league leaned on during his time with Detroit.
“With the passing of Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement provided by the NHL. “Mike’s commitment to excellence and to winning were unparalleled and his commitment to the community was unrivaled – as was his boundless support of youth hockey. He was a prolific philanthropist, and, above all, a devoted partner and husband to his wife of 62 years, Marian. At this moment of heartbreaking sorrow, we send deepest condolences to the entire Ilitch family and to all who were privileged to know him, play for him or work for him.”
Next season the Red Wings are scheduled to move from their longtime home at Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit to the $733 million Little Caesars Arena, which is also located in the same general area. Ilitch always showed a strong desire to keep the Red Wings and the Tigers in the city’s metropolitan core, even as many businesses and residents fled to the suburbs. This part of his legacy is almost as important as all his victories with the Red Wings
“It’s always been my dream to see a vibrant and energized downtown Detroit,” Ilitch said in a statement after the announcement of the arena plans in 2014. “I want people to look at Detroit’s new sports and entertainment district and see what I see: the potential for something very special. I couldn’t be more excited and proud to bring this vision to life.”
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