News broke over the weekend that Mike Ilitch, longtime owner of the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings, had passed away at the age of 87. He leaves behind a wife, seven children, and millions of people in the Detroit region who will miss him dearly.
Ilitch was more than just another ultra-wealthy professional sports mogul. Yes, he was ultra-wealthy. Yes, he was a professional sports mogul. However, when all is said and done, these accomplishments will pale in comparison to everything else Mr. I managed to accomplish in his 87 years.
IN THE BEGINNING
Michael Ilitch was born in Detroit in 1929 to Sotir and Sultana Ilitch. The son of two Macedonian immigrants graduated Cooley High School in Detroit and served for four years with the United States Marine Corps.
After his military career came to a close, Ilitch took to professional baseball. He played second base for a handful of teams, including his hometown Tigers.
In 1959, after his playing career had come to a close, Ilitch opened a small pizza franchise. Little Caesars Pizza Treat, a tiny pizzeria in Garden City, Michigan, would eventually grow into the multi-billion dollar, international fast food conglomerate you see today.
Marine, professional ball player, restaurateur – Mike Ilitch was truly a self-made man.
It was here at this junction in Ilitch’s life, that his sports legacy began to take shape.
HIS IMPACT ON PRO SPORTS
After purchasing the Red Wings in 1982, Ilitch turned the fledgling Wings into a team to be reckoned with. Under his ownership, they’ve managed to make the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, win six Presidents Trophies, and four Stanley Cup championships; including back-to-back titles in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
On the passing of Ilitch, ESPN analyst Craig Custance said, “The Detroit Red Wings franchise was a first-class franchise under Ilitch, one that sacrificed nothing in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup.”
To many in the hockey world, Ilitch was known as an owner who
truly loved the game. He would do anything for his club.
He purchased the Detroit Tigers in 1992. In a similar fashion, he restored the Tigers to their former glory, reaching the World Series twice and winning four consecutive Central Division titles from 2011 to 2014.
Forget the franchises for a moment, Ilitch would do anything for Detroit.
A GIVING MAN
What Ilitch did for his franchises was but a drop in the bucket compared to what he did for the Detroit community. While most investors were running as fast as they could out of Detroit, Ilitch never flinched. He purchased property after property in his pursuit of revitalizing the downtown core.
Aside from his financial investments in the city of Detroit, a list of Ilitch’s philanthropic efforts reads longer than most resumes. Apart from the wonderful work his franchises have undertook, his personal contributions have been enormous.
- In 1985, Ilitch started the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, a traveling restaurant equipped to feed the hungry and assist in national disasters.
- In 1986, he formed the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program, an organization which has helped literally thousands of children to play the sport.
- In 2000, Ilitch Charities for Children was founded. As a non-profit, the charity was dedicated to improving health, education, and recreating in the lives of children. The charity was renamed Ilitch Charities in 2008 and broadened its focus. Ilitch Charities invests in communities and supports economic development and job growth to address issues like poverty and unemployment.
- In 2006, Ilitch started the Little Caesars Veterans Program, which provides veterans with business opportunities after their life in the service.
Ilitch has been recognized for his charitable efforts by the likes of former Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He received the Secretary’s Award from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, had the “Mike Ilitch School of Business” at Wayne State University named after him, and in February of 2008 was given the key to the City of Detroit.
In 2003, Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in 2004 he was inducted into the United States Hall of Fame.
HIS LAST CONTRIBUTION
Unfortunately, Ilitch passed before he had the opportunity to see his last contribution to the city of Detroit come to fruition. In 2014, it was announced that the Red Wings would soon break ground on the construction of a new arena.
Soon after, construction on the Little Caesars Arena was underway. The Wings are set to move into the new, state-of-the-art complex next season; without their enigmatic owner Mr. I.
For his commitment to the city of Detroit, for his love of sport and his fellow man, Ilitch will undoubtedly be remembered as one of sport’s most endearing franchise owners.
The public is invited to share memories and condolences at a public memorial site outside of Comerica Park on Woodward Ave. Also, a public visitation will be held at the Fox Theatre Grand Lobby on Wednesday from noon to 8:00p.m. Ilitch purchased and restored the historic theatre in 1987.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to be made in Ilitch’s memory to:
“From Our Haus to Yours”