Mike Ilitch, owner of Red Wings, Tigers, dead at 87
A native Detroiter, founder of Little Caesars was beloved in Motor City
Mike Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesars Pizza empire and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, has died. He was 87.
Ilitch, who was praised for keeping his professional hockey and baseball teams in Detroit as other urban sports franchises relocated to new suburban stadiums, died Friday at a hospital in Detroit, according to family spokesman Doug Kuiper.
"He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends," his son Christopher Ilitch said in the statement Friday night.
Ilitch and his wife, Marian, founded Little Caesars in suburban Detroit in 1959, and eventually grew the business into the world's largest carry-out pizza chain with several spin-off companies. Under his ownership and open cheque book, the Red Wings soared back to stability and won four Stanley Cup championships, and the Tigers — who'd scouted a young Ilitch in the 1940s — made it to the World Series.
He was as much a fan of the often-struggling Detroit as he was of sports. When approached in 2009 by organizers of the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Ilitch agreed to sponsor the annual college football bowl game despite a poor local economy. The game was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
"It's a sporting event, and we need sporting events," Ilitch said at the time. "It picks our community up to no end, with all the great colleges we have in this state and the professional teams that we have. Thank God for `em, especially at times that are rough right now."
The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch was born on July 20, 1929. He played baseball at Detroit's Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers after his four-year stint in the U.S. Marines, spending three years in the team's farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.
But he found his niche in business. His family's companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion in 2011.
It started with that first Little Caesars restaurant in Garden City, a working-class suburb west of Detroit. A food service distribution company soon followed to supply ingredients and other products for the growing number of restaurants. Blue Line Foodservice grew into one of the largest program account food service distribution companies in the U.S.
Ilitch Holdings Inc. was established in 1999 to manage the family's interests in food, sports and entertainment, and the company remained family focused. His son, Christopher, is president and CEO, while his wife, Marian, was vice chairwoman as well as sole owner of MotorCity Casino Hotel, one of Detroit's three casinos.
Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had bottomed out to mediocrity, but it began winning again under Ilitch. The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
"With the passing of Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
"Mike's commitment to excellence and to winning were unparalleled and his commitment to the community was unrivaled — as was his boundless support of youth hockey. He was a prolific philanthropist, and, above all, a devoted partner and husband to his wife of 62 years, Marian. At this moment of heartbreaking sorrow, we send deepest condolences to the entire Ilitch family and to all who were privileged to know him, play for him or work for him."
Saddened to hear about the passing of Mr.Ilitch. He was a pleasure to play for and his will to win was second to none. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MrI?src=hash">#MrI</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Wings?src=hash">#Wings</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Tigers?src=hash">#Tigers</a>—@DeKeyser5
Really sad to learn the news of Mr I's passing. He meant everything to the Wings, Tigers & Detroit. Best owner in sports. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RIPMrIlitch?src=hash">#RIPMrIlitch</a>—@Dylanlarkin39
Heartbroken hearing of Mr I's passing. He was a family man. A self made man. A giving man. An icon for our city and nation. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RIPMrIllitch?src=hash">#RIPMrIllitch</a>—@JustinVerlander
Ilitch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.
"Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are incredibly passionate about Detroit and their teams," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. "They create a family atmosphere with stability, loyalty and a personal touch. But we all understand we have to produce to be around for a long time."
As part of his long-term plan to build a Detroit-based business empire, Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages sports and entertainment venues, in 1982.
Husband and wife bought the downtown Fox Theatre five years later and started a massive, $12 million restoration. It reopened a year later and became a lucrative venue for musicals, plays and other productions. The Little Caesars world headquarters also was moved downtown.
Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 million. He moved it in 2000 from the storied but fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.
Unlike previous owners of both sports franchises, Ilitch opened his checkbook to sign top players — finding solid success in hockey, and a roller coaster in baseball.
'Not afraid to spend money'
The Tigers lost an American League record 119 games in 2003, but advanced to the World Series three years later, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Near the end of a disappointing 2008 season, Ilitch said he and the team would review everything done to put the roster together but focusing on the $138 million payroll wasn't the priority.
"I'm not afraid to go out and spend money," Ilitch said. "It's been very costly, but I'm not going to change my ways."
But Ilitch never got the chance to see his team win a World Series as its owner, despite spending millions of dollars on contracts for stars like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.
"I've never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I," Tigers Executive Vice-President and General Manager Al Avila said Friday in a statement. "What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable. He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us — especially the fans."
The Tigers made the American League playoffs in 2011, a return to winning that brought more fans to Comerica Park. The team last made the playoffs in 2014, losing to the Baltimore Orioles.
"We won a lot. I wish we would have won the ultimate world championship for him," former Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski told The Associated Press on Friday. "He loved the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan and its fans."
Christopher Ilitch called his father a "once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader."
"He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends," Christopher Ilitch said in a release.
Ilitch is survived by his wife, seven adult children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private, but plans are being made for the public to pay their respects to Mike Ilitch and the Ilitch family.