Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, and founder of Little Caesars Pizza, passed away at 87 on Friday.
He was a first-generation American of Macedonian descent who rose to prominence as an entrepreneur during his lifetime and leaves behind a lasting legacy in the professional sports world, the restaurant industry and across the United States.
While he’s best known in the hockey community as the longtime owner of the Red Wings, Ilitch’s story is one that’s inspiring for all Americans and people across the globe.
The Early Years
Ilitch’s family fled Macedonia for the United States where they settled in Detroit in 1929 — the same year he was born. He grew up there and attended Thomas M. Cooley High School where he was a standout baseball player who drew attention from none other than the Tigers. The major league team offered him $5,000 to sign with the organization, but Ilitch wanted double that amount or was going to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. The Tigers refused and he kept his word, joining the Marines in 1948.
In the midst of the Korean War, Ilitch was set to be sent to the front lines, but on the way, his ship stopped in Hawaii where he was told he’d be staying there instead — ironically, so that he could play as a member of a military baseball team in Pearl Harbor. It was there that Ilitch completed his military service.
When Ilitch completed his four years of service, he returned to Detroit where he signed with the Tiger organization and played baseball in their minor league system in different cities despite the wishes of his parents. Ilitch, had an entrepreneurial spirit early on, and convinced a Detroit-area nightclub owner that he should serve pizzas. Soon after, Ilitch was hired to work in the kitchen where he made pizzas that were a hit with customers of the business.
What began as a way to earn some extra money as a minor league baseball player would later become something far more.
Ilitch’s baseball career ended prematurely when he suffered a broken leg and it was then that he began to focus on life after baseball.
The Little Caesars Story
Ilitch married Marian Bayoff in 1955 and raised seven kids together as Mike worked different jobs to support his family. He worked at a cement company and later sold dinnerware and aluminum siding door-to-door, but it would be in the pizza business where he would soon make his mark. Mike and Marian wanted to open a pizza parlour — so much so that they invested all $10,000 of their life savings and borrowed an additional $15,000 — before opening the business in 1959.
Before the business opened its doors, however, it needed a name.
Mike liked the name ‘Pizza Treat’ while Marian preferred ‘Little Caesars’ — a nickname she often used for her husband. In May, the very first Little Caesars Pizza Treat opened its doors in a strip mall in a Detroit suburb, Garden City. Mike was in charge of making the pizza, handling the menu and marketing efforts while his wife managed the businesses finances. By 1962, their first franchise opened and what started as a couple’s idea soon became a national phenomenon. By 2016, Little Caesars was the third largest pizza chain in the United States, behind only Pizza Hut and Domino’s.
Buying the Detroit Red Wings & Detroit Tigers
Ilitch sought out buying a professional sports franchise in 1982 — first, eyeing the Tigers, but being outbid by Domino’s Pizza owner Tom Monaghan. While Ilitch was unable to acquire the Tigers at that time, he was presented with the chance to purchase the hometown Red Wings — a franchise that was struggling and long removed from the dominant . They had made the playoffs just twice in the previous 17 seasons (1966-67 through 1982-83) after winning four Stanley Cups and five additional trips to the Stanley Cup Final from 1949-50 to 1965-66.
In 1982, Ilitch purchased the Red Wings for a reported $8 million.
Over nearly 35 years as owner of the Red Wings, they’ve won four Stanley Cups and made two additional trips to the Stanley Cup Final and have made the playoffs the past 25 seasons. Since the 1982-83 season, the franchise ranks first in points percentage (.587), division titles (16) and playoff berths (30) and playoff series wins (37), and second with four Cups. They were the last franchise to win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles (1997, 1998). Ilitch helped build his franchise around people like Jimmy Devellano, Ken Holland and Scotty Bowman, while creating a winning culture and one of the strongest brands in the National Hockey League. In 2015, the franchise is worth an estimated $600 million, according to Forbes Magazine.
In 1992, Ilitch got the opportunity to purchase the Tigers from Monaghan for a reported $85 million. During his time as owner of the Tigers, Ilitch helped the team to a playoff berth in 2006 — their first in 19 years — and one in which they made it all the way to the World Series, before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals
More important than his successful pizza franchise and his sports team ownerships, however, is the tremendous impact Ilitch had on people in the city of Detroit and across the nation. His pizza chain was a sponsor of minor hockey throughout the midwest since 1968 and the Ilitch family has spent more than $200 million since 1982 in revitalization efforts for Detroit — something that has had a meaningful impact on anyone who lives or visits the city.
“I was raised in Detroit,” Ilitch said, in a past interview with the Detroit Free Press, according to Kevin Shea of the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I came from zero. This community helped make me. It’s nice to give something back.”
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) February 11, 2017
In 1985, he launched the Little Caesars Love Kitchen — a restaurant on wheels that travels across the country feeding the hungry or helping those in areas affected by natural disasters. In 2006, he established the Little Caesars Veterans Program, which gives honorably discharged veterans a business opportunity as they return home from service. In 2007, Ilitch received the Secretary’s Award from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs for his efforts in the program — the highest tribute given to a private citizen by that department, for his efforts in the program.
The hockey world has also made sure his contributions to the game will forever be remembered through numerous honors in his name.
In 1991 he received the Lester Patrick Trophy for his service to hockey and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2003 and he’s also a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
While Ilitch’s son, Chris, is reportedly set to take over the operations of the family’s businesses, Mike Ilitch’s contributions to the Detroit community, the sports world and his country will never be forgotten.
Steven is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the game of hockey. He’s the Lead Writer covering the Tampa Bay Lightning with THW. He’s also been press credentialed through the Lightning since 2016. His work has been published at The Fourth Period, LightningInsider.com, Bolt Prospects, The Sports Daily Network, U.S. College Hockey Online and College Hockey News. He’s had radio appearances on TSN 690 in Montreal, Lightning Power Play Live and multiple podcasts to give insight and analysis on the team. He can be reached on Twitter @StevenDiOssi and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.