Mike Ilitch was working at his pizza store in the Detroit suburbs one day when a nephew came in and asked if he could sponsor a youth hockey team. Ilitch had played defense for a couple of years on a youth team in his teens but could hardly skate. He didn't know what sponsoring a team involved. But he agreed, and when his sons heard he was buying jerseys, they decided they wanted to play too.
So Ilitch became a hockey dad. As his pizza business grew, he kept sponsoring more and more teams. In an interview in October 2003, he shared what happened next:
"Mike, I want to show you something," his wife, Marian, said.
"What's that?" he asked.
"I want you to look at the books now. You see the salary that you made?"
"You see this money over here?"
This money over here was for sponsorships.
"That was all our profit," Ilitch said in the interview. "We didn't make any money."
That was Ilitch. When he died Friday at age 87, he left a legacy as founder of Little Caesars Pizza, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, owner of the Detroit Tigers and champion of the city of Detroit because he was more than a successful businessman. He was a dreamer who cared about his teams and his community, not just his bottom line.
The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch grew up on the west side of Detroit, served in the Marine Corps and played minor league baseball for the Tigers. He and his wife opened their first pizza store in suburban Garden City in 1959 and turned it into a national chain. They turned the sponsorships into the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program in 1968 and got wrapped up in the sport, first buying Red Wings season tickets, then a suite at Joe Louis Arena.
Video: Remembering Mike Ilitch
"When it was announced they were up for sale, we told ourselves we couldn't afford it," Ilitch said in October 2003. "But nobody made any offers for the Wings, they were so bad. So I said, 'You know what? I'm going to go over there and see what they want.' We talked, and I figured, 'You know, I might be able to swing this deal.' It was in such bad shape, the franchise, that we got it at a pretty reasonable price."
Ilitch paid $8 million for the Red Wings in 1982. They had not won the Stanley Cup since 1955, had not made the playoffs but once since 1970, and could not draw more than a few thousand fans a game. So Ilitch hired Jimmy Devellano from the New York Islanders to be his general manager, gave away a car every game and slowly built the Red Wings into the class of the NHL.
While the Little Caesars program developed young players, some of whom made the NHL, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. They have made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons. Joe Louis Arena has been packed consistently. Ilitch won the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to U.S. hockey in 1991 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2003.
"He had incredible passion and was a fierce competitor," longtime Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said Friday. "Any decisions made for the Red Wings, it was about winning. It was never about the business. It was always, 'How do we get better? How do we improve the team?' I can't imagine there's any better owner in professional sports than Mr. Ilitch."
But hockey was only part of it, which says a lot. At a time when businesses were leaving the city or already long gone, Ilitch moved Little Caesars Pizza headquarters from suburban Farmington Hills to Detroit and renovated the Fox Theatre. He bought the Tigers, built Comerica Park and watched his baseball team make the World Series twice.
His name is on the business school at Wayne State University in Detroit. He began building Little Caesars Arena, the anchor of a mixed-used development called The District Detroit. The Red Wings will play there starting next season, and so will the Detroit Pistons, whom Ilitch lured from The Palace in suburban Auburn Hills.
Stand on Woodward Avenue in Detroit and face north. To your left is the Fox. To your right is Comerica Park. Up ahead is Little Caesars Arena and The District Detroit. Everywhere is the impact of Mike Ilitch.
Video: Nick Cotsonika on the legacy of Mike Ilitch
"When I think of Mike Ilitch, I think of a man who turned downtown Detroit into a terrific downtown," Devellano said Friday. "It was a city that struggled, in many cases was made fun of, and Mike Ilitch has probably been the leading force in restoring downtown Detroit. I think it's certainly a fabulous legacy."
Ilitch avoided the spotlight, except, say, when he would introduce his latest high-priced free agent at a press conference. But he often was at Joe Louis Arena or Comerica Park, sitting in his suite, watching games, agonizing. In the interview in October 2003, he was asked if there was anything the fans didn't understand about him that he'd like to share.
"I'd just like to tell them I'm just like they are," he said. "I mean, I'm a blue-collar guy 150 percent, and I know exactly how they feel. I felt the same way, and I still feel the same way. After all these years, I sit on my seat, and I look out there, and I look at all those people, and I say, 'You own this thing.' It never really sinks in.
"So basically you're still a fan. That's how I feel. I live and die with it, just like they do."