Skip to main content

Mike Ilitch special to Mike Babcock, Brendan Shanahan

Late owner was key to Red Wings' success, say Maple Leafs coach, president

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- The passing of Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch hit two members of the Toronto Maple Leafs particularly hard. Coach Mike Babcock and president Brendan Shanahan have deep roots in Detroit and experienced great success during their time with the Red Wings under the ownership of Ilitch, who died Friday at age 87.

"He looked after all of us and gave us all the resources to have all the success you could ever ask for," said Babcock, who coached the Red Wings from 2005-15 and guided them to the Stanley Cup in 2008. "He had an appreciation for hard work and stick-to-it-iveness and getting things done."

Video: NHL Tonight: Remembering Mike Ilitch

Babcock, who came to the Red Wings after spending two seasons as coach of the Anaheim Ducks, said the tone Ilitch set had a great impact on him early in his NHL coaching career.

"He made you want to be a better man," Babcock said. "He was committed to doing things right. What he touched in business turned to gold, but he had that presence about him that made you want to be better."

Under Ilitch's ownership, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Shanahan spent nine seasons with the Red Wings and was a member of the first three championship teams. He remembered Ilitch for always making him feel like he was a part of a family instead of just a player on a team.

"For Mr. Ilitch, he was such a passionate sports man but his family always welcomed us," Shanahan said. "They knew the players, they knew the wives, the girlfriends, the kids. We all were made to feel like we were a part of his family.

"They considered us all their 'boys,' as they used to say. Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch used to refer to us as their 'boys.' Sometimes guys were 35 or 40 years old, but we were still their boys. Just a very compassionate great man and a great family man."

Every now and then, Ilitch would visit the dressing room before a game, Shanahan recalled. His presence alone let the players know the game was an important one.

"He was a competitive guy," Shanahan said. "He'd come down to the dressing room every once in a while and wouldn't really say too much but we knew if he did a little trip down to the room before the game, for whatever reason this one meant a little more to him."

Shanahan remembered one time before a game against the Boston Bruins, when Ilitch made one of his trips down to the dressing room. At first it seemed like an odd time for a visit; a game midway through the regular season, and the Bruins and Red Wings were in separate conferences at the time. But then it dawned on Shanahan. During the previous summer, Ilitch had had some words with the Bruins ownership at a board meeting and wanted to come out on top.

"We made sure we weren't asleep for that one," Shanahan said. As he recalled, the Red Wings won.

The true measure of good leadership is being able to lead through respect and encouragement rather than by instilling fear. Rather than working in fear of making a mistake, it leads people not to want to let down those who do so much to help them succeed. To many who spent time with the Red Wings, that's exactly how they felt Ilitch was able to get the best out of his employees.

"We all work for someone," Babcock said. "Some people make you come in earlier. They don't say nothing but they just show up every day and they grind and they make you want to grind.

"That, to me, was what he was all about. Ken Holland as general manager and Mike Ilitch, they set a standard for all the people that worked there that made you want to please them and made you disappointed in yourself, not mad at them, disappointed in yourself, when you didn't live up to what you should."

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.