Mike Ilitch, who founded the Little Caesars pizza empire before purchasing the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, died at a local hospital Friday. He was 87.
Ilitch’s company, Ilitch Holdings Inc., confirmed the passing in a statement.
“He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends,” said his son Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc.
Ilitch and his wife, Marian, founded Little Caesars in 1959 in Garden City (Michigan), a working-class suburb west of Detroit. Marian would late become the vice chairwoman as well as sole owner of MotorCity Casino, one of Detroit’s three casinos.
Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million to acquire the Red Wings. The hockey club was struggling at the time, but would soon win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years in 1997-98 as well as 2002 and 2008.
Ilitch was inducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame the following year.
“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,” 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.”
Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz offered a statement on behalf of the Red Wings’ longtime rivals.
“On behalf of the Wirtz family and the Chicago Blackhawks, our thoughts and prayers are with the Ilitch family and the Detroit Red Wings organization,” the statement read. “Mike was a very generous man who had an immeasurable impact on the city of Detroit, and the sport of hockey.
“Mike also touched many lives within our own organization. We mourn his loss with heavy hearts. He will be remembered as a successful businessman, philanthropist and an incredible family man.”
Hockey wasn’t Ilitch’s only passion as he purchased the Tigers in 1992, a team with which he once signed a minor league contract with in the 1950s. Ilitch moved the team from Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park in 2000, but was unable to secure a World Series title in his time at the helm.
“I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I,” Tigers executive vice president and general manager Al Avila said. “What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable. He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us — especially the fans. Mr. I was truly one of the great ones. He was a friend and an inspiration and he will be deeply missed.”
Detroit Lions president Rod Wood was also quick to offer his thoughts on the Motor City icon.
“On behalf of the Martha Ford family and the Detroit Lions, we extend our deepest and most sincere sympathies to the Ilitch family and to the Red Wings, Tigers, Little Caesars and Olympia Entertainment organizations on the passing of Mike Ilitch.
“Mr. Ilitch’s many positive contributions to our city and region will be everlasting and will greatly impact future generations of our community. His leadership of the Red Wings and Tigers truly set a standard of excellence.”
Ilitch is survived by his wife, Marian, seven adult children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.