In my previous article, I mentioned that it was not a good year to be year to be a Boston Bruin fan with the death of Milt Schmidt and the firing of the franchise’s coach who won the most games in the team’s history, including a Stanley Cup, Claude Julien. It has also not been a good year to be a Detroit Redwing fan which has seen the team lose the greatest player in its history, Gordie Howe, and now the man who was mostly responsible for saving the franchise from ridicule, owner Mike Ilitch.
When Ilitch bought the team from the Norris family in 1982, the Redwings were a far cry from their glory years in the early 1950s, Howe’s greatest years. They had not iced a contending team since the end of the 1960s and were mired in possibly the worst part of their history. Since 1970 when Detroit began its descent starting with the “Darkness with Harkness” years, the Redwings had become the laughingstock of the NHL, even eclipsing Harold Ballard’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
So bad were the Redwings that it would take Ilitch and the management which he carefully built up as well as the team roster, 15 years to become a Stanley Cup champion again. Rebuilding the Redwings was a slow and painful process that could be frustrating. It took a great effort to rescue the team from the depths to which they had fallen.
But when the glory years came, they were big. Ilitch’s Redwings would win four more Stanley Cups, tying the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place behind Montreal on the all time victory list. The Detroit Redwings are unquestionably the best American franchise in NHL history. And during most of these years, if Detroit did not win the Stanley Cup, they were at least a top contender. Detroit has now gone 26 years without missing the playoffs. If they miss them this year, it will only be because they have been so good for so long that have not been able to draft top juniors for such a long time.
On the ice, probably the two key players who brought Detroit its second period of glory were Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom. The Redwings were probably also the first NHL team to make good use of Russian players, newly freed with the fall of the Iron Curtain. European players would play key roles in reviving the franchise to its former glory.
Ilitch also bought the Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball but he has not come close to the success he has had with the Redwings. His best legacy with the Tigers was mostly financing the baseball park they now play in.
How important was Ilitch? Since 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs suffered two extensive periods of bad ownership, first under Harold Ballard, and then under the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund whose record somehow eclipsed even Ballard’s worst years. The result has been the current longest streak of 50 years without even making the Stanley Cup Finals. That was depths to which the Detroit Redwings had fallen. Good ownership is vital to a sports franchise and Ilitch provided it. He was crucial to Detroit’s success.
Once the current ceremonies for Mike Ilitch are over, the crucial question of running the Detroit Redwings will arise. Besides praying for Ilitch, Detroit Redwings fans should be praying for a new owner who will be as good or better than Ilitch. Whoever it is will have a tough act to follow and big shoes to fill.