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Mike Ilitch, owner who brought glory back to Red Wings, passes away at 87

Mike Ilitch, who has owned the Red Wings since 1982, passed away Friday at 87. Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. He won four Stanley Cups as the Red Wings’ owner.
Robert Laberge/Allsport

Robert Laberge/Allsport

Detroit lost an icon on Friday evening, as Mike Ilitch, who has owned the Red Wings since 1982 and the MLB’s Tigers since 1992, has passed away at 87.

When it comes to the Red Wings, much of the team’s success is thanks to Ilitch’s ownership, as he was at the helm when the franchise saw its great turnaround. He purchased the franchise for $8 million in 1982 from Bud Norris at a time when the organization was experiencing arguably its greatest low, having made the post-season just once in 11 seasons and hadn’t won a post-season round since the 1969-70 season.

While Ilitch wasn’t directly responsible for drafting, trading or signing talent, one of his first moves as the team’s owner would prove to be one of the most impactful. Ilitch hired Jim Devellano to be the Red Wings’ GM in 1982, and the two made a formidable pair in the front office.

The consistently low finishes in the standings allowed the Red Wings to stockpile top draft picks, and the year after Ilitch had taken over the franchise, Devellano made what could be considered the most important modern-day decision in Detroit’s history when he selected Steve Yzerman fourth-overall in the 1983 draft. Over the next few seasons, the Red Wings would also add Bob Probert, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and a host of others to the lineup.

But it was drafting Yzerman that, in a way, sparked the reversal of fortunes for the club. Over the next several seasons, Detroit would work its way into contention, and by 1990-91 the team became a perennial contender in the most literal sense. From that season onward, the Red Wings made the post-season in each of the next 25 seasons, a streak which continues to this day.

During the Red Wings’ heyday, Ilitch oversaw the revitalization of Hockeytown, and one of the franchise’s greatest decisions was bringing in coach Scotty Bowman in June 1993. Before Bowman joined the franchise, the Red Wings had taken steps forward, but they had failed to reach the next level. Under Bowman, though, the Red Wings would etch their names on the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than 40 years, and win another two titles, the first 1998 and a third in 2002.

"I took a look at hockey history and at sports history," Ilitch told the Associated Press at the time of Bowman’s hiring. "Something dawned on me. There seems to be a pattern. People who win continuously win. The same people win, over and over. So when I was looking for a coach, I went looking for somebody who has won, who knows how to win."

It was during the Red Wings’ run of dominance that another of Ilitch’s hires would pay massive dividends, and again with an assist to Devellano. In 1997, the front office was shuffled, putting Ken Holland in the GMs chair. The move would prove to be another stroke of genius, and one that the Red Wings would greatly benefit from in the years since. 

Holland and staff would be responsible for the drafting of players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Jimmy Howard and Johan Franzen, all part of what would become the second run of success in Detroit, which was capped by the 2008 Stanley Cup and subsequent Western Conference championship in 2009. Holland would go on to be named one of the most important sports executives across all sports in 2009 by Sports Illustrated.

“Mr. I stands as one of America’s greatest sports team owners,” Holland said in a statement Friday. “To have been able to 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 hi and call him a friend.”

Ilitch, who made his fortune in the pizza business, and his Little Caesars Pizza chain was set to become the namesake of the Red Wings’ new home, Little Caesars Arena, which is set to open its door to the public and the Red Wings and the NBA’s Pistons come the 2017-18 season.

The same Red Wings he purchased for $8 million in 1982 was valued at $625 million in Forbes’ 2016 franchise valuations, and Ilitch was one of the driving forces behind the franchise’s success. For his work in turning around the franchise, Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and was enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame the following year.

"By far, this is the biggest moment of my professional life. It's a great honour," Ilitch said, according to the Hockey Hall of Fame. "It's been an absolute labour of love. I'm so pleased with this moment that when I was informed, I could barely speak.”

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