February 13, 2017
‘Pizza Guy’ Mike Ilitch always
delivered for fans, city he adored
By KEITH GAVE
For all his work and all his successes and all his billions of dollars, Mike Ilitch never dared to even dream about some of the honors that came his way. Sometimes, in fact, they rendered him nearly speechless.
“I mean, there’s Rocket Richard. There’s Gordie Howe,” Ilitch told an interviewer at the time. “And all of a sudden, here comes the pizza guy – into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It takes some adjustment.”
Now it’s our turn, speechless and heartbroken as we try to imagine a world without this giant of a man among us. Mike Ilitch, who more than anyone (and always with his wife and partner Marian at his side) inspired the true renaissance in Detroit, died Friday. He was 87.
I was honored to know him for more than 30 years, privileged to cover his hockey club, the Detroit Red Wings, for my newspaper from 1985-98, grateful beyond words to chronicle the championship teams he delivered to the fans he adored.
I also was there to write about some of his worst teams in the mid-1980s and it never ceased to amaze me that the bleaker things looked the harder he worked to make them better. He would do anything. . . anything. . . to improve his hockey team. Spend millions signing a handful of undrafted college free agents? Done. Tamper with players from three other NHL clubs to lure them to Detroit? Sure, to hell with the penalties the league may bring down on his team.
Orchestrate the defection of a world-class winger out of Communist Czechoslovakia in the middle the Cold War. Yep. Hire a coach away from another NHL club, prompting more tampering charges and more discipline from the league? He did that, too.
Make history by drafting a bunch of Soviet players, then turning his top lieutenants loose to orchestrate more defections and departures from behind the Iron Curtain. Of course. Every move designed to build a franchise that would make us all proud.
And all his hard work and millions of dollars invested paid off. Since Mike and Marian bought the Wings in 1982 until his death, no team in the NHL has won more games. No team has won more Stanley Cups (four), or been to the Cup Finals (six) as often as Mike Ilitch’s Detroit Red Wings.
Few owners have ever loved a team, it’s players, managers, staff and support team as much as he did. His generosity is legendary.
Early on in his time as an owner, when players’ average salaries were such that most of them took on summer jobs to make ends meet, he and Marian hosted team receptions at the end of the season. Beneath the plate of each wife was an envelope containing $1,000. Spend it on yourself, he told the wives. Get something nice, from us, for all the support you’ve shown your husband over the long hockey season.
When Steve Yzerman – the fifth son the Ilitches never had – finished his rookie season with 39 goals in 1984, he was touted as a leading candidate for the NHL’s Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. The award carried a $50,000 bonus – again, serious money at the time. Right before the award was announced, Ilitch handed Yzerman an envelope. In it was $50,000. “No matter what happens tonight, Kid, you’re my Rookie of the Year.” Yzerman finished second in the balloting to Buffalo goaltender Tom Barrasso.
Mike Ilitch always described himself as a fan with an owner’s wallet, and every move he made was influenced by how happy it would make those who followed his team so passionately. He was actively involved finding the right coaches and paying them right to keep them happy.
When the better coaches in the league were making $300,000 a season, Ilitch brought Scotty Bowman to Detroit and paid him $1 million.
When the time came to sigh his best players, Ilitch had no issues adding a zero or two to a contract. Think about it. How often did you hear even a whisper about Yzerman’s contract issues over his 22-year career? The only answer is never, because Ilitch repeatedly tore up the contract and extended it with generous raises, knowing the importance of keeping his best player happy.
A born salesman and a marketing genius, Mike Ilitch knew how to close a deal. His failures were few, but spectacular. Amid tenuous contract negotiations with Sergei Fedorov in 2003, Ilitch took charge and called a meeting with the player that included Senior Vice President Jim Devellano and General Manager Ken Holland.
After a short conversation, Ilitch put his best and final offer on the table: $50 million for five years, a move designed to keep Fedorov in Detroit the remainder of his career – even if that meant he would be vastly overpaid in the final years of the deal as his production declined.
Fedorov paused, shook Ilitch’s hand and thanked him for the offer, saying he needed time to think about it. And he left.
With that, Ilitch turned to Holland and Devellano and said, “Well, that’s it. He’s gone.”
The two men asked why he would say that.
“Because,” Ilitch said, “you don’t have to think about an offer like that.”
He was right. A short time later, Fedorov signed with Anaheim – for $40 million over four years, inexplicably leaving $10 million on the table.
Nearly everyone who has ever come into contact with Mike Ilitch can share a tale of his generosity or passion for his teams, the Red Wings and Tigers, and the City of Detroit. I’m certain of this, too: Mike Ilitch left this world believing with all his heart that his hockey team would find a way to make it into the Stanley Cup playoffs again this spring – because that’s the tradition he established for this club.
That these Wings will not make the playoffs breaks our hearts every bit as much as it broke our hearts that the Tigers did not deliver a World Series title on his watch. In fact, I’m not sure who wanted that to happen more and why: Mike Ilitch, for us; or us, for Mike Ilitch?
At any rate, I am left with this idea of Mr. I approaching the Gates of Heaven and I want to shout to St. Peter (though in fact I said a little prayer):
“Make way for someone special, please. Here comes The Pizza Guy.”