I will fully admit that this shocked me as I wasn't even aware the billionaire was ill. He was always present and accounted for at both Red Wings and Tigers games, and he was one of the men who was leading the downtown restoration of the city of Detroit. Born on July 20, 1929 as the son of Macedonian immigrants, he played baseball at a Detroit high school and was good enough to be drafted by his hometown Tigers. After serving four years in the Marines, a knee injury ended his baseball career in the minor leagues. And that's when Mike Ilitch became a businessman.
At the age of 30, he founded Little Caesars Pizza Treat in 1959 with his wife Marian in Garden City, Michigan. His empire grew over the years to the point where he was listed in Forbes for being one of America's richest men. It was his move into sports ownership, however, that saw him revitalize the Detroit sports scene.
In 1982, Ilitch bought the Detroit Red Wings for $8 million from Bruce Norris. There were certainly some lean years early on, but Ilitch continued to spend money on improving both the team and Joe Louis Arena. His investment saw the likes of Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, and many other NHL legends drafted and developed in the Red Wings' system. Ilitch saw his Red Wings win Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, and he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 as a member of the builders' category.
"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."
The man known to most simply as "Mr. I" was truly an icon in Detroit, and his work will not soon be forgotten. He realized that he had to spend money on his facilities and franchises to make them successful, but he also hired smart people to run the day-to-day business sides of those franchises. Whether it was one of his seven children or Ken Holland or Dave Dombrowski, Ilitch put his businesses in excellent hands, and they became pinnacle franchises in their respected industries.
It's hard to measure just how big the void will be in Detroit without Mike Ilitch's presence. What I do know is that the world and the game of hockey lost a man whose dedication, passion, and commitment to his teams, his business, and his city may be unparalleled. Rest in peace, Mr. Ilitch. Your legacy will live on for many generations.
Until next time, raise your sticks high in honour of Mr. Ilitch!