Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch died Friday at the age of 87, according to multiple reports. Ilitch, who made his money as the founder and owner of Little Ceasars Pizza, purchased the Red Wings in 1982 and Tigers in 1992 and had a burning desire to turn both of them into champions.
As it turned out, that was easier for the Red Wings than the Tigers.
Under Ilitch, the Red Wings turned into one of the most revered franchises in the game. In his tenure as team owner, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups, six conference championships, six Presidents’ Trophies and 16 division championships. They are, and continue to be, a perennial contender.
In a statement from the Red Wings, GM Ken Holland said of Ilitch:
“Mr. I stands as one of America’s greatest sports team owners. 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.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman echoed similar sentiments in his statement about Ilitch:
“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 Bettman said.
“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.”
While Ilitch didn’t have the same success initially with the Tigers, he eventually turned them around. Despite the team finishing over .500 just once in his first 14 seasons, Ilitch was able to get a new stadium built in Detroit.
Though the team continued to struggle, Ilitch was determined to make them a contender. He hired general manager Dave Dombrowksi in 2002, and the two men were tasked with turning around the worst franchise in the game. Though the team bottomed out in 2003, losing an incredible 119 games, Ilitch was able to convince star catcher Pudge Rodriguez to sign with the club.
Over the next few years, the Tigers would slowly develop talent, reaching the playoffs and breaking an 18-year playoff drought in 2006. Though they would lose in the World Series, the Tigers remained a strong contender through 2014. During that period, Detroit reached the postseason five times, losing twice in the World Series.
Ace pitcher Justin Verlander, a key member of the Tigers’ rise to prominence, paid tribute to Ilitch, calling him “an icon for our city and our nation.”
Despite the team’s core getting older, the Tigers refused to sell in recent years. Many believed that was because Ilitch wanted to see the club win a championship before he died.
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