Ilitch’s passion fueled rebirth of Red Wings, downtown

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Jimmy Devellano remembers what the city of Detroit was like when he was hired by Mike Ilitch to be the Red Wings’ general manager in 1982.

Devellano looks around downtown Detroit these days, and that’s where Ilitch’s legacy is foremost, said Devellano.

Ilitch, the Red Wings and Tigers owner, builder of the Little Caesars empire, and believer in downtown Detroit, died Friday at the age of 87.

“When I arrived in Detroit 35 years ago, people didn’t go to downtown Detroit, there was little to do, there was no reason to go,” Devellano said. “When I think about Mike Ilitch, I think about his impact on downtown Detroit above everything else.

“Restoring the Fox Theatre to its previous grandeur. He brought his corporate world headquarters to downtown Detroit, then went about building a ballpark in downtown Detroit which every year brings more than two million people to the downtown core.

“And, of course we all know he’s building an arena in the district, with condos, retails and hotels and bars and restaurants.

“The Detroit I arrived to 35 years ago has been tremendously upgraded. Mainly, that’s due to Mike Ilitch and his family.

Wojo: Ultra-competitor Ilitch made Detroit a winner

“He had a passion for everything he did,” said Devellano, Ilitch’s first hire for the Red Wings, who was instrumental in turning the team from a laughingstock to a dynasty. “He was a hard-driving individual in his life and that’s why he was successful. There was no question about his interest in sports, first with the Red Wings and then with the Tigers.

“He loved sports and took it very seriously. He wanted to win very badly and eventually both teams did a fair amount of winning.”

Scotty Bowman, who coached the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups under Ilitch’s ownership, called Ilitch a unique owner who would do anything to help the team win.

“He was just a wonderful man to work for,” Bowman said. “He was committed to winning. It’s funny, but when I went there I was going to stay for two years and I wound up staying for nine. Mainly it was because of his input.

“When we needed someone, or something, he was always only a phone call away. And that was always true. You’d call him up, whatever time it was, and he was always around.

“He would always ask ‘Will this help us win?’ That was his favorite saying. He would always do whatever was necessary.”

When Bowman didn’t see Ilitch for the 1997 Stanley Cup winning team’s reunion at Joe Louis Arena in December, Bowman was concerned.

“When I didn’t see him there, I thought he might not be feeling well,” Bowman said. “I know he would want to be there for something like that. He cared deeply about the people who worked for him.”

Around the hockey world Friday night, there was an outpouring of emotion, admiration and genuine caring for a man who left a huge mark on the city of Detroit and its sports world.

Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, issued a statement on Ilitch, calling him “the consummate owner.”

“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.

“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.”

Ken Holland, Red Wings’ general manager, called Ilitch of the nation’s great sports owners.

“To have been able to work with him for more than 30 years and be a part of turning a struggling franchise into a champion again was an experience of a lifetime,” Holland said. “His commitment to his team and our fans, is the reason we all feel a part of “Hockeytown”. He will be deeply missed by those of us who were fortunate enough to know him and call him a friend.”

Current and former Red Wings players reacted on Twitter.

“Really sad to learn the news of Mr I’s passing. He meant everything to the Wings, Tigers & Detroit. Best owner in sports. #RIPMrIlitch,” tweeted Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin.

“My thoughts go out to the Ilitch family and the Red Wings. Mike was a trailblazer for his city and our game, on the ice and off of it,” tweeted Hall of Fame forward Brett Hull, who helped the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup in 2002. @tkulfan