by | Apr 30, 1992 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The six bottles of Evian water will be lined up tonight, side by side, as usual, near his seat. He will drink them methodically, swigging one, watching the action, swigging another, watching the action. This is what will sustain him. Water? Water. No food. Food slows you down. Food dulls your senses. He can’t eat food during a game, not even his own pizza. And visitors? Forget visitors. He wants to be alone. That’s why he sits in a private section of his suite, walled off by glass. No small talk. No interruptions. Hey, pal, this is serious business. His pulse races. His eyes dart. His pores are open, ready to sweat. He is a child, mesmerized by the action. He is a parent, watching his sons go off to war. He is part fan and part owner. He is the impresario of the ice. This is how he will take in Game 7 of the first-round playoffs at Joe Louis Arena: Just him, his seat, his six bottles of Evian water.

And a heartbeat like a drum solo.

You thought you got nervous watching a hockey game? Imagine if your pride, your business instincts, and a piece of your future were riding on that puck. Imagine if every one of those kids out there, you had some say in acquiring, you paid their salaries, you granted their wishes, you helped feed their children. Imagine if you had sunk millions of dollars into developing a product, and here it was, in one choking evening, showing you whether it would pay off. This is how Mike Ilitch described watching a recent overtime game: “I felt like I was in the intensive care ward.”

This is fun?

This is fun. And frustration. And joy and sorrow and pride and problems and emotion — always emotion. Mike Ilitch might look like he’s wearing a poker face, but that’s only because his insides are racing so fast, his outside goes numb trying to keep up. He cares. He sweats. And he can’t help it. He is stuck on his sport like melted cheese on dough.

Sorry about the pizza reference.

Kind heart gets broken But what does anybody know about Ilitch — besides that he makes a lot of pizza? That he doesn’t like to give public statements? That, as sports owners go, he tends to be generous, walking into a locker room and handing Steve Yzerman a $50,000 check, or leaving brand new VCRs on every player’s stool at Christmas?

All that is accurate. And yet, because he is also a man who likes to think of his business as family, Ilitch is destined, now and then, to have his heart dragged through the dirt. It happened a few weeks ago, with the NHL players strike, something that stung him like a divorce.

“Can you feel the same way now as you did before the walkout?” I ask him at his Little Caesars offices above the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. “Even with your team trying to win the Stanley Cup, have you lost a little passion because of the strike?”

“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t help but take the strike personally,” he admits. “I think I got a little too close to the players, and maybe I’m going to have to look at it more the way they’re looking at it, as a business.

“I always thought our players and our sport was different. I felt when their careers are over and they needed to turn to somebody, I felt they would turn to me. They won’t go to (union chief) Bob Goodenow. I don’t think he’ll offer them a job. . . . I always would have. . . .

“It was hard for me to see Steve Yzerman, who I took in when he was 17 years old, and now he’s sitting across the negotiating table from me. . . . I wanted to say to him, ‘Son, you trusted me when you were 17, trust what I’m saying now. I’m telling you the truth.’ . . .

“And it was hard for me to see a guy like Bob Probert, after all that we’ve been through, still voting to strike. . . . I don’t want to single players out, but let’s just say it would have been nice to get a symbolic vote from him. If not a vote, at least say something, like ‘Wait a minute, this has not been the normal owner-player relationship.’ . . .

“There were a couple guys who . . . well . . . I would have felt better if I had gotten four or five votes from my players, you know? To get shut out, to get no votes at all, I think I got a little emotional over that.

He pauses, then adds, “Of course, I understand. If they had voted not to strike, they would have been singled out by the other players. And that would have been hard for them, I guess, but . . . “

His voice trails off.

“You were hurt?” I say.

“Well . . . ” he says.

He was hurt.

A slice of life Maybe that surprises you, that a 62- year-old multimillionaire who built a pizza empire from a single oven in the back of a Detroit restaurant would still be affected by emotions such as loyalty and gratitude. A man who owns countless restaurants, theatres, airplanes, luxury homes, a man who talks about city planning and profit sharing and annual reports — what purpose could emotions serve anymore? They have no mathematical value. They pay no dividend.

Here is what they do: They give life its taste.

And Ilitch tastes everything.

It is worth noting the fourth floor of his Little Caesars offices. This is the corporation’s research and development aorta — also known as the kitchen. And here is where Ilitch still plays master chef, sipping the spaghetti sauces, sniffing the cheese, allowing the Crazy Bread to melt between his gums so he can suck out the flavor and see if it is right. Everything — everything — goes through Mike Ilitch’s taste buds before it goes into the stores.

It is his way of steering the ship. It is his way of staying close to his most dominant personality trait: A dogged belief in his own way of doing things. To hear stories about Ilitch’s childhood is to hear a lesson in independence. The son of Yugoslavian immigrants, he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder during his youthful days in Detroit. He was, in his own words, “a wild kid.” There were scuffles, problems. He let his instincts lead him by the nose — even when they led him astray.

Example: As a senior in high school, Ilitch was a good enough baseball prospect to be wooed by the Tigers. They wanted to sign him. They called him in.

“We’ll offer you $5,000,” said Charlie Gehringer, who was handling such matters for the Tigers back then.

“I want $10,000,” Ilitch said.

“Come on, Mike. We can’t give you that.”

“I want $10,000.”

“But Mike . . . “

“Give me $10,000, or I’ll join the Marines.”

The Tigers didn’t budge.

He joined the Marines.

“I was in for three years, and then the Korean War broke out, and they froze me for another year,” Ilitch says now, able to laugh at his bullheadedness. “By the time I got back, I was so excited just to play baseball again that I signed with the Tigers for the same money as they had offered four years before. But I was 22. I wasn’t the hot prospect anymore.”

When baseball didn’t pan out — in his biggest spring training game, he says, when all the scouts were watching, he dropped a double play ball with the bases loaded “and that was the beginning of the end” — he chose business. He learned to make pizzas in the back of a west side bar, then went door to door selling everything from pots and pans to awnings to raise money for his first pizza parlor, in Garden City. You know the expression “learning a business from the bottom up?” To this day, although he owns hundreds of stores, Ilitch says if one of his workers called in sick, he could drive down and do the job.

“I love making pizzas,” he admits, “the sauce, the cheese, rolling the dough. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, everything. . . .

“I also love the idea of coming up with a food that’s original, knowing that millions of people will be eating it. That’s my high. That’s my moment.

“Of course it’s a different high than I get from hockey.”

Fate picked hockey Right. Hockey. In hockey, sometimes, his high looks like a low. The other night, in the Red Wings’ goosebumpy overtime win in Minnesota, Ilitch found himself in a familiar position — sitting down, while everyone else was standing up. “When (Sergei) Fedorov scored that goal, everyone in the suite was jumping up and down saying, ‘We won! We won!’ They were looking at a TV monitor and they were sure it was good. But I never got up. I don’t believe it’s over until it’s over. Anything could happen. Those replay judges could make a mistake.”

“How did you feel when they finally called it good?” I ask.

“I felt . . . relieved.”

As a former baseball player, Ilitch’s first franchise desire was to buy the Tigers when they were for sale in the early 80’s. Once Tom Monaghan edged him to that, Ilitch chose the Red Wings.

If you ask me, there was fate guiding those transactions. Ilitch’s passion and commitment would have been wasted in baseball, where so many owners are now such greedy fools and so many players now such self-absorbed businessmen. Ilitch might have been soured a bit by the NHL strike experience, but not enough to turn his back on the sport.

“You know, all during the negotiations, I was hoping we could work something out that was different than all the other sports. I’m not really trained in labor negotiations, but I pitched my heart out in there. I suggested that we be entrepreneurs together, that we come up with something new, that we make sure no players had to do what I did when their sports was over — go door to door. . . .

“I said the same thing to our players the night before the strike vote. I said the biggest reason I owned a team was the overused word ‘family.’ I thought that if there was a strike, that family idea would be in danger, that there would be a lot of bitterness and maybe even hatred. I said I know our sport is smaller than the others, and we’re a little more conservative, but I like it that way. Let’s keep it special. Let’s not just make it another business. God knows we have enough businesses already.”

This is a businessman talking?

A businessman. A father. A philanthropist. A competitor. Mike Ilitch’s curse and blessing may be that he doesn’t really know where one ends and one begins. I ask him whether he would still feel any strike bitterness if the Wings were to win the Stanley Cup. To his credit, he answers honestly:

“If I walk into that locker room, and that cup is sitting there, well, it might change a few things.”

So maybe he’s still deciding where he stands. But he knows where he sits, at least for tonight, in the lonely seat in the corner of the suite. You don’t often think about the owner of the team, how he’s handling the nerves and pressure of a Game 7. Ilitch will handle it with one bottle of Evian after another. “Yeah,” he laughs, “I’ll be watered down.” But not quenched. Some fires you don’t put out that easily.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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