Detroit Red Wings and Tigers Owner Mike Ilitch Passes Away At 87

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16 Jun 1998: Team owners of the Detroit Red Wings Mike and Marian Ilitch hold the Stanley Cup trophy up over their heads during the Stanley Cup Finals game against the Washington Capitals at the MCI Center in Washington, D. C.. The Red Wings defeated the Capitals 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

via Last Word on Hockey, by  Griffin Schroeder (Associate Editor)

It is a grueling day for the sports world and especially the city of Detroit. Owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers franchises as well as the leader of the pizza empire known as Little Caesar’s, Mike Ilitch has passed away at the age of 87.

A pure Detroiter, he was born in 1929 and served four years in the Marine Corps. He got his start in the sports world in baseball playing from 1952-1955, offered a contract by the Tigers after he served. Ilitch ended up playing in their organization in addition to the New York Yankees and Washington Senators systems, compiling a .268 batting average in 336 career minor league games.

After building Little Caesar’s starting in Garden City, Michigan in 1959, the first franchise was introduced in Warren, Michigan three years later. In 1967, the first Detroit location was opened. Mike and Marian Ilitch would take part in a notable transaction regarding one of the city’s sports teams 16 years later.

From the time the first Detroit Little Caesar’s was opened in 1967, the Red Wings were better known as the “Dead Things,” as among 11 franchises who had 1000 games played from 1967-1982, the Wings sat at 11th with a 407-587-184 record. The family made the move to acquire the franchise for $8 million from Bruce Norris in June of 1982. As they say, the rest is history.

Fast forward to now. The Red Wings under their ownership have posted a 1388-921-225-142 record, the best in the NHL. In addition to that, the team rattled off 181 playoff wins through a stretch of six trips to the Cup Final in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008, and 2009, capturing four championships in 11 years, spending a quarter-century consecutively in the Stanley Cup Playoffs from 1991-2016. The franchise additionally has six conference championships, six Presidents Trophies, and 16 divisional titles to their name, hence, all the red and white banners hanging at Joe Louis Arena that can make your neck hurt after gazing for so long.

In the midst of turning the Red Wings around, Ilitch, still having a grand passion for baseball as the avenue that got him into the industry, decided to purchase the Detroit Tigers franchise that was also fledgling ever since their 1984 World Series title, making the playoffs once in eight seasons since despite having a winning record in five of those campaigns, on August 26th, 1992.

Like the Red Wings, it took a bit of time for the team to vault into championship contention with his other franchise making it to the Final 13 years after Ilitch’s purchase. However, there were more dog days for the Tigers, having one winning season from 1993-2005, including none from after the ’93 campaign. Despite the on-field product, the Ilitch Family had a vision of the Tigers moving downtown from the outskirts of Detroit on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. That vision became a reality in 2000 when Comerica Park hosted its first opening day in blizzard-like conditions. Ilitch provided 60% of the $300 million invested into the park to build it. Five seasons later, and three after losing a near-record 119 games, Ilitch’s 2006 Tigers made it to the World Series for the first time since 1984. From 2007-2016, they had seven winning seasons, making it back to the World Series in 2012. Their four consecutive division titles from 2011-2014 was the first time in franchise history that they made the playoffs four straight seasons since the inception in 1901.

A few years before his passing, the Ilitch family again wanted to bring a team back to downtown, and they forwarded the project of District Detroit in 2014, which will include Little Caesar’s Arena, the nearly-completed new home of his Wings that will begin play there in the 2017-18 season. It is projected to be 50 new blocks of parks, eateries, businesses, and bars, connecting all four teams of the major sports (Tigers, Red Wings, Detroit Pistons, Detroit Lions) with thriving businesses, parks, restaurants, bars and event destinations.

Mr. Ilitch will go down as one of the more tremendous icons in Detroit history not just for the results of his teams, but for what he did for the city. From everyone at the Last Word on Sports Family, our condolences are with the Ilitch family.

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