(Reuters) - American entrepreneur and Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, died on Friday at the age of 87, his company announced in a statement. No cause of death was given.
Ilitch, a first generation American of Macedonian descent who founded international fast food franchise Little Caesars Pizza, had owned the Tigers since 1992 and the Red Wings since 1982.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, said 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.”
Ilitch enjoyed his greatest sporting success with the Red Wings, transforming them into perennial championship contenders while investing heavily in good management and leadership, years of drafting top picks and shrewd grooming of young players.
The Red Wings reached the Stanley Cup finals three times between the 1994–95 and 1997–98 seasons, winning the coveted trophy in 1997 and 1998 before adding two more in 2002 and 2008.
Prior to the 2004–05 NHL lockout, Forbes magazine ranked the Red Wings as the fifth-most valuable franchise in the NHL, despite a $16 million operating loss.
“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,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said: “Mr. I stands as one of America’s greatest sports team owners. To have been able to work with him for more than 30 years and be a part of turning a struggling franchise into a champion again was an experience of a lifetime.”
While Ilitch was never able to celebrate a World Series with the Tigers, he gained huge respect from the players and their fans for his financial commitment in transforming a franchise that suffered a record-setting 119-loss season in 2003 into genuine playoff contenders.
“This team in general has an amazing amount of respect for Mr. Ilitch and what he’s done, not only for this ballclub but also for the city,” ace Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said after the team reached the World Series in 2012.
“If he didn’t put this ballclub together, this wouldn’t be happening, and it wouldn’t be this way for the city right now. He’s the best owner in baseball. He has spared no expense in putting together this team. He wants to win.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Andrew Both