“I always told people you were too smart to get involved with a lousy team like this,” I said.
He almost blushed. “Well, you know I’ve always wanted to own a team,” he said. “But the deal had to be right. It was touch- and-go every half-hour since we began negotiating last Monday. If I couldn’t make a good business deal, I wouldn’t have bought.”
The team had just 2100 season ticket holders. They hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1955. They had only qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice in the past 17 years. They were commonly referred to as the “Dead Wings”.
All of that slowly but surely began to change when Mike Ilitch bought the team from Bruce Norris, whose family had owned the team the previous 50 seasons. Jim Devellano was brought in as general manager, and soon, the team drafted a shy 18-year-old center from the Peterborough Petes with their first draft pick in 1983, despite rumors that they’d select Pat LaFontaine.
The change didn’t occur overnight, however. It took two seasons for Detroit to return to the playoffs, and the team wasn’t able to advance past the powerful Edmonton Oilers. Head coach Jacques Demers soon named Yzerman team captain, and the team began to enjoy sustained regular season success. But following shocking playoff upsets to the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks in 1993 and 1994, rumors began to swirl on whether or not Yzerman was capable of leading the team to glory.
It didn’t stop Ilitch from trying to build a winner. Legendary bench boss Scotty Bowman was brought aboard in 1993, and the team sent waves through the NHL by trading for young power forward Brendan Shanahan early in the 1996-97 season that eventually culminated in Detroit’s first Stanley Cup championship in 42 years. The image of Yzerman handing the Cup to Ilitch will last in hockey history forever.
Ilitch became known as an owner that would do anything and spend whatever it took to win. Their legendary payroll of $78 million in 2002, nearly double the average NHL payroll, was a testament to the Ilitch commitment to success.
Detroit wouldn’t be Hockeytown without Mr. I. We wouldn’t have “The Captain” without Mr. I. Joe Louis Arena’s rafters wouldn’t be full of banners without Mr. I.
Mike Ilitch was the Red Wings.