Whether it was a marquee Detroit Tigers pitcher such as Justin Verlander or a savvy Detroit Red Wings veteran such as Henrik Zetterberg, or even an everyday Joe Louis Arena staffer, you could easily identify the respect and affection team owner Mike Ilitch inspired among a loyal legion of Detroit faithful just by the way they referred to him. It was almost always “Mr. I.”
In an age where so many owners are scrutinized and, in some cases reviled (see: Dolan, James) Ilitch — who died Friday at 87 — was one owner who seemed to transcend this sort of sniping. Instead, he earned his reputation as a benevolent patriarch who was not shy about spending to field a superior product, both on the ice and on the diamond.
As recently as last winter, Ilitch shrugged off baseball’s luxury-tax threshold and awarded a hefty contract to high-profile free-agent outfielder Justin Upton. His message? I don’t care about the money. I want titles.
Tigers general manager Al Avila chuckled when he recalled that mandate he received. Standing pat and making “modest upgrades” was not a favored plan under the boss. Rather, Ilitch was brazen and bold, because he wanted — desperately — to give the fans what he felt they deserved. Sadly, he would not live to see that elusive World Series title with his Tigers, but his commitment to and passion for his two franchises was never in question.
In hockey it was no different, as Motown experienced a wealth of success during his stewardship, including four Stanley Cup championships. The Red Wings remain a pillar of consistency: The team has not missed the playoffs since the 1989-90 season, a mind-boggling streak that shows the organization’s commitment to excellence. The Wings have been a beacon for their superior scouting, deft drafting and enviable depth, both among players and hockey executives. A Red Wings pedigree counted for something within hockey’s collegial atmosphere, and that reputation began at the top.
The professional sports landscape is vastly different now from when Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982 (he would purchase the Tigers a decade later), and his longevity provided a cornerstone of stability and steadiness for fans in an age in which ownership has become more transient and much more transactional.
Ilitch’s dedication, not just to his beloved teams, but also to the town itself, helped bolster Detroit’s profile as a vibrant blue-collar city with a fervent and loyal fan base that expected — and deserved — excellence.
It wasn’t just business to Mr. I. Detroit sports were his passion, his love. And that will be his lasting legacy.