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Rest in Peace, Mr. Ilitch, Detroit’s true Renaissance man

The world lost a great man — A man who started from the bottom and worked his way up.

Team Owners

As some of you know, I work overnights at a TV station here in Detroit. I’m usually asleep at odd hours and can often miss parts of games, or pieces of news — Most of which just sort of falls between the cracks because I’m too tired to look into it until I get to work, or it just simply does not interest me at the time. I live in the news world — A lot of stuff just gets brushed aside, because I can’t become emotionally attached to it. My job is to stay unbiased, and unaffected by news — good or bad. That changed Friday evening, around 8 pm, when I woke up and saw a push notification on my phone stating that Red Wings owner and Detroit pioneer Mike Ilitch had passed away.

Ilitch had been battling health issues for quite some time, so when I read the news, it was a very numb-sadness as a whole.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Mr. I lived, and breathed Detroit. He brought thousands of jobs, opportunities, and a lifetime of memories for multiple generations. One memory that will live with most of us, will be the Stanley Cup that the Red Wings brought to Detroit, on the shoulders of Mr. Ilitch:

Skip to about 12 minutes into the video.

Mr. Ilitch never went to college -- and he never made it as an athlete in the sport that he loved most, which was baseball. He had signed with the Tigers’ minor league team, but his career was cut short due to injury. Ilitch’s legendary success began when he and his wife, Marian, entered the business world. They opened the first-ever Little Caesar’s store in Garden City in 1959. It was nothing but success from there, as the business tycoon would build not only a pizza franchise, but a pizza empire. Say what you want about it, but we’ve all had that day where we hop over to our local Little Caesar’s and grab a $5 pie. That’s all thanks to Ilitch.

Mr. I bought the Red Wings in 1982, he bought the team for $8 million from the Norris family while the franchise was struggling. His passion, aggressiveness, and overall hatred for losing helped pave the way for one of hockey’s most praised franchises — winning four Stanley Cup Championships in 11 years, and housing some of hockey’s greatest players in Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and well, you know... The list goes on, and on, and on. Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 for the success he had with the Red Wings.

Mike and Marian Ilitch
Getty Images

Outside of his business, and his sports ownership, Ilitch loved his city. He donated millions to multiple charities. One Ilitch’s most respectable organizations was Little Caesars Hockey, an organization committed to the development of young hockey players not only in Metro Detroit, but all over. LCH would be responsible for developing names like David Legwand, Mike Modano, Derian and Kevin Hatcher, Vincent Trocheck, and hundreds more.

Among the many charities Mr. Ilitch participated with, Little Caesars Love Kitchen was one of the most notable. The Love Kitchen was a restaurant on wheels who helped distribute food to feed the hungry — including those affected by national disaster.

“I remember the days at Joe Louis Arena where we were giving cars away, there were twenty-five, thirty-five-hundred people in the building. Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch themselves were answering phones, there was no advertising on the boards, nothing on the ice, and they got down, got their noses dirty, and that’s where we ended up having a 25 year run so far in the playoffs. They’re a pretty amazing family.”

Mickey Redmond in an interview with WDIV-TV

That’s what makes Ilitch’s dynasty so special — he took the Red Wings in an era known as the “Dead Wings” and turned it into on of the best franchises the NHL has ever seen. One franchise that would not only fill seats at home, but fill seats in other arenas around North America. Ilitch was an innovator, philanthropist, and a the biggest fan of his own sports teams. In fact, many would say that his love for the Tigers and Red Wings were what created his success. He was an owner that had a bulldog-mentality, using his deep pockets to create star-studded lineups for the fans he loved, and the fans that loved him back.

Mike Ilitch and his family made every player that had the good fortune of playing for him feel like a new member of his family. We saw the joyful tears in his eyes when Stevie Y first handed him the cup in 1997. We watched him sit beside Vladimir Konstantinov after his tragic accident a week later. He was more than a team owner. It was personal. We were all his adopted “boys” and he helped us all become men.”

Brendan Shanahan’s statement

And now, I’m going to close this out with some personal thoughts on Ilitch.

Mike Ilitch is a great definition of “The American Dream.” His family came to America as immigrants, Ilitch was went to Cooley High School in Detroit. His father worked as a machinist to provide for their family. The Ilitch family worked from the ground up to create something not only special, but something revolutionary.

80% of the happy memories I had as a child were directly responsible from what Mike Ilitch and his family created. I grew up a die-hard Red Wings fan. I could always count on Ilitch putting together exciting rosters to watch. I could always count on him that when I went to the Joe, I’d leave with some sort of fond memory — whether it be an exciting win, or a certain smell or feeling. I could even count on him when I was a broke college student in need of a cheap way to eat.

When Detroit was at it’s lowest, when the lights were about to go out, and the curtain was closing, Mr. Ilitch did what he does best — he got to work. I’ll be damned if I consider Mike Ilitch anything but Detroit’s Renaissance man.

You will be deeply missed, Mr. Ilitch. Thank you for everything you’ve done to make my childhood memorable, and thank you for your commitment to rebuilding the city that you and I love so much. You weren’t just some multi-billionaire owner out to make a buck... You were a fan, like one of us. It won’t be the same without you, but your legacy will live on forever. Rest in peace, sir.