How legendary owner Mike Ilitch made Detroit 'Hockeytown'

Helene St. James
Detroit Free Press

Mike and Marian Ilitch long were fans and supporters of the Detroit Red Wings. They advertised with the team, had season tickets and relished attending games.

Mike and Marian Ilitch hoist the Stanley Cup Tuesday night in Washington, DC after the Red Wings won their second consecutive NHL Championship. Igor Larionov is at left.

The early 1980s were good for the Ilitches, who had a budding pizza empire in Little Caesars. The times were awful for the Wings, as season after season saw them win in the 20-game range. After three decades as owner, Bruce Norris let it be known he was willing to sell. The Ilitches won the bidding war with an offer of $8 million -- and set to restoring the team to glory.

"It wasn't Hockeytown when the Ilitches purchased the Detroit Red Wings," longtime Illitch advisor Jimmy Devellano told the Free Press. "It was in the Detroit River and had been for many years. The team had missed the playoffs 14 of the previous 16 years, OK? Fourteen of 16 years."

Mike Ilitch died Friday. He was 87.

Read the obituary: Tigers, Red Wings owner and pizza titan Mike Ilitch dead at 87

The Ilitches long had loved hockey - their sons played it - and they sponsored youth hockey in the Detroit area starting in 1968 with the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program. Buying the Wings was realizing a dream.

Devellano, now a senior vice-president with the organization, was hired as general manager by the Ilitches. He recalls having lunch with them on July 12, 1982, when Marian Ilitch wondered how many season ticket holders the team had. "The answer was 2100," Devellano said.

That soon changed.

"Mike Ilitch was all in, to put it mildly," Devellano said.

Mike and Marian Ilitch address the media about celebrating the 50-year anniversary of Little Caesars Pizza on Thursday, April 30, 2009, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Within two years, the Wings were back in the playoffs. They missed again in 1986, but in 1987, Joe Louis Arena throbbed with fans as the Wings advanced three rounds before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals. A decade later, the Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and Ilitch's reputation as a generous owner became legendary.

"You presented players to him, and whether it was Dominik Hasek or Brett Hulll or Luc Robitaille, or re-signing Nicklas Lidstrom or Sergei Fedorov, he was willing," Devellano said. "When we brought in Scotty Bowman, the good coaches were making $300,000. Scotty made a million with us.

"That was all Mike. No general manager can do that a without approval of ownership."

Read more: Ilitches make it official: Chris in line to lead family business empire

Beyond money, it was the willingness to take big risks that defined Ilitch as an owner. In 2001-02, the Wings had a payroll of $78 million, more than double the NHL average of $38 million. They were everyone's favorite to win the Stanley Cup - but lost the first two games of the playoffs.

"If we got bounced in the first round by Vancouver, we probably would have lost $25 million," Devellano said. "Mike Ilitch was the type of person that had taken risks in his life, he had a good track record of doing that and in that case, it worked."

Players quickly caught on to how much winning meant to the Ilitches.

"Some owners are content with less," Kirk Maltby said. "Like in the old days in Toronto, they used to say, what do they care about winning when they are still filling the seats. Mr. Ilitch wanted to win. They were called the dead Wings when he took over and he was very passionate."

Maltby joined the Wings in 1996 via trade. When he got married eight years later, Mike and Marian Ilitch were among the wedding guests.

"For what they have accomplished, they are very down to earth," Maltby said. He remembers the night of June 7, 1997, when the Wings ended at 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

"You weren't going to walk up and pour a bottle of champagne over Mr. Ilitch or Mrs. Ilitch," Maltby said, "but they gave everyone and anyone a hug. Whether you were Steve Yzerman or a black ace, you were part of the family, the Red Wings family. He cared about you."

More than three decades after Mike Ilitch bought the team, Devellano looks back with pensive pride.

"We've won four Cups and only missed the playoffs three times," he said. "People forget, because there have been lots of good times, but we lost a substantial amount the first few years and the Ilitches had to eat it till we got better.

"Stories, sometimes they don't start out so good. But the story turned out good."

Contact Helene St. James: Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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