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Ted Lindsay, Scotty Bowman mourn Mike Ilitch

Longtime Red Wings owner was cherished friend to Hockey Hall of Famers

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

The NHL and Major League Baseball are in mourning for the loss of Mike Ilitch, the self-made billionaire who rose from modest roots as the son of immigrants to ultimately found the Little Caesars Pizza empire and become owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. He died Friday at age 87.

Red Wings legends Ted Lindsay and Scotty Bowman, two of the greatest names in Detroit's sports landscape, will miss a man whose door was always open and whose friendship was deeply cherished.

"It's a great loss, but Mike left his mark on this great city," Hockey Hall of Famer Lindsay said from his Detroit-area home Friday night. "He recognized what he could do for Michigan and he did that, and more.

"Mike was an athlete, a baseball man first, but he also was a man who was involved in hockey almost his entire life. He was a great supporter of the game. For him to end up owning the Red Wings hockey club didn't surprise me a bit."

If they often crossed paths at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, Lindsay said he most enjoyed his time away from the arena with Ilitch and his wife of 61 years, Marian.

"I think I've known all of Mike and Marian's children from the day they were born," Lindsay said.

Video: NHL Tonight: Remembering Mike Ilitch

Bowman came to the Red Wings as coach for the 1993-94 season, a dozen years after Ilitch had bought the financially strapped team.

The most successful coach in NHL history would lead the Red Wings to three of the four Stanley Cup championships they won with Ilitch in the owner's office, celebrating in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Mike Babcock, now coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, won the fourth, in 2008.

"When I first went to Detroit, the team was pretty good and Mike was very, very eager to get a winner," Bowman recalled Friday from his winter home in Sarasota, Florida. "His door was always open; any time you wanted to run something by him, you just picked up the phone. I don't think he ever turned anybody down. Mike wanted to hear about what you wanted to do, but he really, really just wanted to win. He got a championship, four of them, in hockey. It's unfortunate that his Tigers never won the World Series."

Ilitch was a hands-off owner, Bowman said, leaving his Red Wings to the people he hired to run them.

"The only thing Mike wanted you to do was keep him informed," Bowman said. "He'd say, 'If you want to make a big move, call me.' That's the way he operated.

"He was a fan. He came to all the games but he never interfered. He never came near you to say, 'Why don't you do this or that?' If you wanted to do something, Mike wanted you to explain the reasons, but I don't recall in my time his ever saying, 'Don't do it.' He'd ask you questions, then he backed you when you did it. It's quite a feeling to have when you work for someone like that. Mike was the kind of guy who left no stone unturned to win. He backed you 100 percent."

Bowman spoke of Ilitch's grassroots love and support of hockey, from small-check sponsorship decades ago as owner of a single pizza parlor to the creation of massive and hugely influential programs operated under the Little Caesars Pizza banner.

"Mike sponsored a lot of teams," Bowman said. "Kids would leave their own cities to go play in Detroit. I don't know of any other U.S. city that's had minor hockey programs where kids did that, and not only for his teams.

"There are many NHL players who played in the Little Caesars program -- [Hall of Famer] Mike Modano is one. [Ilitch] wasn't getting any players for the Red Wings out of this, he just wanted to develop a good hockey program. That's the way he was, he was a wonderful person."

Behind the scenes, Bowman said, Ilitch always had a helping hand extended, more interested in the families of his employees than what they could do for his businesses.

In fact, if the owner had gotten his way, Scotty's son, Stan, the three-time Stanley Cup-winning general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, would be in the Red Wings organization.

"When Stan was working for a company in Chicago before he got into hockey, Mike would always be asking me, 'How's your family doing?' " Bowman recalled. "I'd tell him they were doing well, that Stan had just finished school, and Mike would say, 'Why don't you bring him here?' I'd say, 'No, no, if he's going to get into hockey, he's got to get in on his own, not with me.'

Video: NHL Tonight talks to Ken Holland about Mike Illitch

"But that's the kind of guy Mike was. He always wanted to do something for you, whatever you needed. He always wanted you to call him. He did an awful lot of things for people, beyond hockey."

Ilitch wasn't a regular in Bowman's office, just off the Red Wings' dressing room. But he would drop in occasionally before a big playoff series, and once or twice a season he'd visit the room to wish the players luck.

Bowman said Ilitch took particular joy in watching a young player develop in the Red Wings organization. The owner also had a profound respect for the history of the franchise and the players on whose backs it had been built.

"The Red Wings were really struggling when he bought them in 1982," Bowman said. "They were starting to push back players' deferred contracts. When Mike came in, he was under no obligation by the purchase agreement to pay these contracts, but he paid every last guy.

"And another thing he did - when the Red Wings won the Cup in 1997, their first since 1955, he made a special championship ring for every living member of that 1955 team. Imagine that."

Lindsay, who in 1955 won his last of four career Stanley Cups, all with Detroit, laughed softly at that unexpected gift.

"They didn't have rings back in those days," the 91-year-old icon said. "In fact, they didn't give away much back then. But doing those rings for us? That was just the kind of person Mike was."

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