By: Will Burchfield
As an owner of two professional sports franchises, Mike Ilitch loved to win. His Red Wings, in particular, won a lot.
But that isn’t what resonates with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman when reflecting on Ilitch’s life.
“He was a competitor and he hated losing,” Bettman told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “As much as he liked winning and achieving the Stanley Cups that they did under his tenure, he hated losing.”
Never was that clearer to Bettman than when he crossed paths with Ilitch after the Red Wings had lost Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals to the Penguins.
“I was coming off the ice and Mike was going on the ice to congratulate Pittsburgh’s ownership. I tried to give the consoling talk that you do under that circumstance and he couldn’t speak. He was so upset that they didn’t win — but that was him. It wasn’t that he was mad or angry, he was so disappointed. Because more than for him and the family – and you know he was the consummate family guy – it was about the fans in Detroit and his players,” Bettman said.
Ilitch, who passed away on Friday at the age of 87, purchased the Red Wings in 1982 for $8 million. 35 years later, after four Stanley Cups, six Presidents Trophies and a current 25-year playoff streak, the Wings are worth an estimated $625 million, well over a 7,000 percent increase in value.
“You have to remember that when Mike and (his wife) Marian bought the Red Wings, they were drawing a couple of thousand people a night. They actually revitalized the Red Wings as a major force,” Bettman said. “All of the prominence that the Red Wings had over the years as a national team was a function of the fact that (the Ilitches) turned the team into an important institution in Detroit and put it on the path to becoming the success they were with all the Stanley Cups.”
Ilitch was known for being a staunch supporter of hockey, a sport that is often overlooked in the American athletic landscape.
“He always had a conscious focus on the game and wanted to make sure that the game was as strong and successful as possible,” Bettman said.
That was true at all levels.
“He believed to his core in the strength of the National Hockey League, (and) the Little Caesars program took youth hockey to new heights in Michigan. He was just so passionate about the game,” Bettman said. “He loved the players, he loved everybody associated with the team and he was a fan at heart, which was great for all of the sports fans in Detroit, particularly the Red Wings fans.”
Despite Detroit’s location in the Eastern Time Zone, the Wings were forced to compete in the Western Conference for much of Ilitch’s tenure. He worked hard to have this changed, primarily in the name of the fans, and succeeded in having his team moved to the Eastern Conference at the start of the 2013-14 season.
“Being in the West and staying there for as long as they did was part of Mike being a League guy, but he passionately wanted the team back in the East and that was something that we committed to do,” Betmann said.
“It was first and foremost about the fans, because they were unhappy that so many of the games that they played against the Western rivals were on later at night, (which made it) harder for fans, particularly young fans, to watch the games.”
In sizing up Ilitch’s legacy as an NHL owner, Bettman said his respect for the players is what stands out the most.
“He did everything for that organization to make sure players and former players felt a part of everything that was going on. He had a resect for history and tradition, but also, because he loved the game and he loved the players who played it, he made sure that the Red Wings always ran a first-class organization,” said Bettman.
The longtime commissioner will miss one of the NHL’s finest ambassadors.
“The world, not just the sporting world, not just the city of Detroit, has lost a great, great man. Mike Ilitch was as special, as dynamic, as visionary as they come,” Bettman said. “I’m personally going to miss him and I know everybody who had anything to do with him is going to miss him.”