The biggest story of the NHL weekend came off the ice, and it was a sad one: The death of longtime Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away on Friday at the age of 87.
It's easy to forget it now, but when Ilitch bought the Red Wings back in 1982, the team was largely an NHL afterthought. They hadn't won a Stanley Cup since 1954; they hadn't even won a full playoff round since 1966, and they'd topped the 70-point mark only once in nine seasons.
Ilitch and new hire Jimmy Devellano didn't turn the franchise around instantly as another miserable season followed. But that one led to the drafting of Steve Yzerman, and soon the Red Wings were back in the post-season. Not long after that, their vaunted playoff streak began, and it continues to this day.
Growing up as a Maple Leafs fan during that era, it was hard not to admire this guy who was slowly but surely rebuilding a Norris rival into something respectable. He could seem like an outsized personality, even showing up in bizarre ads for his pizza chain. But he had the one characteristic that every sports fan wants in an owner: He wanted to win. Once Ilitch arrived in Detroit, the focus shifted away from the petty feuds, ego-stroking and nickel-and-diming that defined so many other owners of the era. With Ilitch, the focus was always on winning.
Eventually, the Red Wings did win. And once they did, they wouldn't stop. Maybe the most telling moment of Ilitch's time as owner came in 1997, when the Red Wings finally snapped their title drought after 43 long years. When Steve Yzerman accepted the Stanley Cup, he didn't turn around and execute the traditional handoff to a veteran teammate. Instead, he gave the Cup to Ilitch. It's a move that hadn't been seen before or since, and speaks to the respect that his players had for him.
Ilitch's passing comes during a season that already felt like the end of an era in Detroit. Pavel Datsyuk left in the off-season. GM Ken Holland is feeling heat from the fan base. And barring a frantic comeback, the playoff streak is going to end. The team will move into a new arena next year, an important part of Ilitch's legacy that he didn't live to see, but at this point it's hard to know what the future might hold.
That's the nature of sports, and of fandom. Eventually, everything ends. But even if that's indeed what we're seeing in Detroit, it's amazing to think that Ilitch's Red Wings stayed at the top for as long as they did, becoming the league's model franchise in the process. Maybe that's the greatest tribute that an owner can earn.
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