Mike Il­itch, owner of Tigers, Red Wings, dies at 87

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - COREY WILLIAMS

DETROIT — Mike Il­itch, founder of the Lit­tle Cae­sars Pizza em­pire and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, has died. He was 87.

Il­itch, who was praised for keep­ing his pro­fes­sional hockey and base­ball teams in Detroit as other ur­ban sports fran­chises re­lo­cated to new sub­ur­ban sta­di­ums, died Fri­day at a hos­pi­tal in Detroit, ac­cord­ing to f am­ily spokesper­son Doug Kuiper.

Il­itch and his wife, Marian, founded Lit­tle Cae­sars in sub­ur­ban Detroit in 1959, and even­tu­ally grew the busi­ness into the world’s largest carry-out pizza chain with sev­eral spinoff com­pa­nies. Un­der his own­er­ship and open cheque­book, the Red Wings soared back to sta­bil­ity and won four Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­onships, and the Tigers — who’d scouted a young Il­itch in the 1940s — made it to the World Se­ries.

He was as much a fan of the of­ten-strug­gling Detroit as he was of sports. When ap­proached in 2009 by or­ga­niz­ers of the Mo­tor City Bowl in Detroit, Il­itch agreed to spon­sor the an­nual col­lege foot­ball bowl game de­spite a poor lo­cal econ­omy. The game was re­named the Lit­tle Cae­sars Pizza Bowl.

“It’s a sport­ing event, and we need sport­ing events,” Il­itch said. “It picks our com­mu­nity up to no end, with all the great col­leges we have in this state and the pro­fes­sional teams that we have. Thank God for ’em, es­pe­cially at times that are rough right now.”

The son of Mace­do­nian im­mi­grants, Il­itch was born on July 20, 1929. He played base­ball at Detroit’s Coo­ley High School and was signed by his home­town Tigers af­ter his four-year stint in the U.S. marines, spend­ing three years in the team’s farm sys­tem be­fore a knee in­jury ended his ca­reer.

But he found his niche in busi­ness. His fam­ily’s com­pa­nies had com­bined rev­enues of $2.4 bil­lion in 2011.

It started with that first Lit­tle Cae­sars restau­rant in Gar­den City, a work­ing-class sub­urb west of Detroit. A suc­cess­ful food ser­vice dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany soon fol­lowed to sup­ply in­gre­di­ents and other prod­ucts for the grow­ing num­ber of restau­rants.

Il­itch Hold­ings Inc. was es­tab­lished in 1999 to man­age the fam­ily’s in­ter­ests in food, sports and en­ter­tain­ment, and the com­pany re­mained fam­ily-fo­cused. His son,

Christo­pher, was pres­i­dent and CEO, while his wife, Marian, was vice-chair as well as sole owner of Mo­torCity Casino, one of Detroit’s three casi­nos.

Il­itch broke into sports own­er­ship in 1982, when he paid a re­ported $8 mil­lion for the strug­gling Red Wings. Once a Na­tional Hockey League pow­er­house, the team had bot­tomed out to medi­ocrity, but it be­gan win­ning again un­der Il­itch. The Red Wings took home the Stan­ley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Il­itch was in­ducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michi­gan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.

“Mr. and Mrs. Il­itch are in­cred­i­bly pas­sion­ate about Detroit and their teams,” Red Wings gen­eral man­ager Ken Hol­land told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a 2010 in­ter­view. “They cre­ate a fam­ily at­mos­phere with sta­bil­ity, loy­alty and a per­sonal touch. But we all un­der­stand we have to pro­duce to be around for a long time.”

As part of his long-term plan to build a Detroit-based busi­ness em­pire, Il­itch also bought Olympia En­ter­tain­ment, which man­ages sev­eral restau­rants, sports and en­ter­tain­ment venues, in 1982.

Hus­band and wife bought the down­town Fox The­atre five years later and started a mas­sive $12-mil­lion restora­tion. It re­opened a year later and be­came a lu­cra­tive venue for mu­si­cals, plays and other pro­duc­tions. The Lit­tle Cae­sars world head­quar­ters was also moved down­town.

Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of play­ing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 mil­lion. He moved it in 2000 from the sto­ried but fad­ing Tiger Sta­dium to Comer­ica Park, across from the Fox The­atre.

Un­like pre­vi­ous own­ers of both sports fran­chises, Il­itch opened his cheque­book to sign top play­ers — find­ing solid suc­cess in hockey, and a roller-coaster in base­ball.

The Tigers lost an Amer­i­can League record 119 games in 2003, but ad­vanced to the World Se­ries three years later, los­ing in five games to the St. Louis Car­di­nals. Near the end of a dis­ap­point­ing 2008 sea­son, Il­itch said he and the team would re­view ev­ery­thing done to put the ros­ter to­gether but fo­cus­ing on the $138 mil­lion pay­roll wasn’t the pri­or­ity.

“I’m not afraid to go out and spend money,” he said. “It’s been very costly, but I’m not go­ing to change my ways.”

The Tigers made the Amer­i­can League play­offs in 2011, a re­turn to win­ning that brought more fans to Comer­ica Park.

Il­itch’s ad­mi­ra­tion of Detroit was put on dis­play in 2009, when Gen­eral Mo­tors — strug­gling un­der the threat of bank­ruptcy — dis­con­tin­ued its spon­sor­ship of the pop­u­lar Gen­eral Mo­tors Foun­tain at Comer­ica Park. In­stead of sell­ing the space to other bid­ders, Il­itch gave the ad­ver­tis­ing spot to each of the area’s car com­pa­nies that sea­son at no cost.

Phi­lan­thropy al­ways was a ma­jor fo­cus. Con­tri­bu­tions, spon­sor­ships and in-kind do­na­tions from the Il­itch com­pa­nies to­tal more than $4 mil­lion per year.

Mike Il­itch in 2014. Il­itch has died in Detroit.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.