The Commercial Appeal

Fans lose a loyal owner with death of Ilitch

- KEVIN ALLEN

When Steve Yzerman decided to leave the Detroit Red Wings to become general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, he drove to Mike and Marian Ilitch’s home to tell them personally.

The act said much about who Yzerman is as a person, but it may have said even more about who Mike Ilitch was as an owner.

When Ilitch, 87, died Friday, his teams and his community lost a person who always made his ownership count.

Ilitch was a players’ owner. He was also a fans’ owner. He had the proper blend of loyalty and passion. He understood the value of his players and took care of them like they were family. But in his heart, he was always a fan. He had a desirable mixture of impatience and drive to push the Red Wings to become an organizati­on that opponents have long admired.

The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008) under his ownership and his fingerprin­ts were all over that success.

When Ilitch bought the Red Wings, they had missed the playoffs 16 of the 18 previous seasons. This season, the Red Wings are trying to qualify for the playoffs for the 26th consecutiv­e season.

It is almost forgotten now that when Ilitch bought the team, it was both a managerial and competitiv­e mess. At that time, the name attached to the Red Wings around town was “Dead Things.” The Red Wings only had 2,100 season-ticket holders.

Ilitch earned the players’ respect by paying top dollar for talent. He won fans’ admiration by exploring every option available to land the best player. He embraced free agency long before it was commonplac­e.

Although Ilitch was founder and owner of Little Caesars Pizza, he never had a corporate approach with his sports teams. To him, owning a sports team was far less about making a profit than it was about trying to win championsh­ips.

He proved that continuous­ly by overspendi­ng in the name of trying to pursue championsh­ips with his Detroit Red Wings and Tigers. He was the owner that every fan wants. He wasn’t meddlesome to the point of preventing general managers from doing their job. But he was involved enough to be a major advantage for his club. He rarely, if ever, said ‘no’ when it came to spending money in name of improving his team.

When I talked to Ilitch through the years, I always thought he was the most approachab­le working-class billionair­e I was ever going to meet. He seemed more like the guy-next-door than someone who could afford to own two major league sports franchises.

Ilitch’s loyalty also extended to his community. He believed in the city of Detroit when others were fleeing the city. He choose to restore the Fox Theater and move his Little Caesars corporate office downtown.

Ilitch’s death comes less than a year after Philadelph­ia Flyers owner Ed Snider died. They were similar in their approach to ownership. They didn’t need anyone to make a report on how their teams were doing. They watched their teams perform and drew their own conclusion­s.

While other owners are as involved as Snider and Ilitch were, their deaths suggest we are close to closing the books on the pre-salary cap era when owner involvemen­t played a heavier role in on-ice competitio­n.

In 2006, I teamed with Art Regner to write a book about Red Wings’ history titled “What it Means to Be a Red Wing.”

Mike and Marian Ilitch wrote the book’s introducti­on, and this was their last paragraph: “If you ask us what it means to be a Red Wing, we would say it means that everyone in the organizati­on while conducting himself, or herself, in a classy profession­al manner. It’s about pride. Little Caesars is a family. And the Detroit Red Wings are a family organizati­on. Pride has played an important role in the success of each venture.”

That is a fitting epitaph for Mike Ilitch.

 ?? JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DETROIT FREE PRESS ?? Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, center, hoists the Stanley Cup trophy in Washington after the Red Wings won their second consecutiv­e NHL championsh­ip in 1998. Vyacheslav Kozlov is at left. Ilitch died Friday at age 87.
JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/DETROIT FREE PRESS Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, center, hoists the Stanley Cup trophy in Washington after the Red Wings won their second consecutiv­e NHL championsh­ip in 1998. Vyacheslav Kozlov is at left. Ilitch died Friday at age 87.

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