Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who was also the founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, died on Thursday at the age of 87, according to representatives of him and his family. Doug Kuiper, a spokesman for the family, said Ilitch died on Friday at a hospital in Detroit, the Associated Press reported. Both the Red Wings and the Tigers posted tributes to Ilitch on their respective social media pages, and Ilitch’s companies put out a press release highlighting his achievements during his career.
Mike Ilitch first made his fortune by taking the concept of pizza that he had discovered while playing as a minor league shortstop in the Tigers’ organization and bringing it to locations around Detroit and Michigan. By 1982, Ilitch had amassed enough wealth to allow him and his wife, Marian, to purchase the then-moribund Red Wings, who were a mere afterthought in Detroit at the time. The Red Wings were an Original Six franchise, but were consistently one of the NHL’s worst teams in the expansion era, having qualified for the playoffs just twice in 15 seasons when the Ilitches purchased the team for a reported $8 million.
What followed was one of the greatest models of sustained success in American sports. Under Mike Ilitch’s ownership, the Red Wings turned themselves into one of the most consistent winners in the NHL, having missed the playoffs just three times in Ilitch’s 35 previous years as team owner. The Wings have made the playoffs every season for the past 25 seasons, a streak that dates to 1991 and is a record of success that no North American franchise can claim.
Included in the Red Wings’ successful run under Mike Ilitch were 16 division titles, six Western Conference championships and four Stanley Cup victories in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. The team is set to move into the new Little Caesars Arena next year, an arena that the Ilitches chose to purchase the naming rights for themselves to reflect the chain’s and the Ilitches’ longtime association with Detroit.
Much like the Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers were a shadow of their former selves when Ilitch bought them in 1992. Unlike the Red Wings, there was no quick fix for the Tigers, who suffered 12 straight losing seasons and an embarrassing 43-119 campaign in 2003. However, Ilitch eventually turned the Tigers into a contender in the American League, winning two American League pennants in 2006 and 2012. In 2000, Ilitch moved the Tigers into Comerica Park, the first Detroit sports facility built in the city of Detroit since the Red Wings moved into Joe Louis Arena in 1979.
The Ilitch family confirmed that it will honor the late Mike Ilitch in a private service. The Red Wings play Saturday night in Columbus and will next play in Detroit on Feb. 15, while the Tigers will open spring training at the end of the month. No plans have been announced as far as how either franchise will honor Ilitch.
Readers, what are your thoughts on Mike Ilitch’s life and career? Leave your comments below.
Commentary by Dan Angell
Photo Courtesy Little Caesars Pizza