Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dies at 87

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Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dies at 87

DETROIT – Mike Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesars Pizza empire and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, has died. He was 87.

Ilitch, who was praised for keeping his professional hockey and baseball teams in Detroit as other urban sports franchises relocated to new suburban stadiums, died Friday at a hospital in Detroit, according to family spokesman Doug Kuiper.

Ilitch and his wife, Marian, founded Little Caesars in suburban Detroit in 1959, and eventually grew the business into the world's largest carry-out pizza chain with several spin-off companies. Under his ownership and open checkbook, the Red Wings soared back to stability and won four Stanley Cup championships, and the Tigers -- who'd scouted a young Ilitch in the 1940s -- made it to the World Series.

He was as much a fan of the often-struggling Detroit as he was of sports. When approached in 2009 by organizers of the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Ilitch agreed to sponsor the annual college football bowl game despite a poor local economy. The game was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

"It's a sporting event, and we need sporting events," Ilitch said at the time. "It picks our community up to no end, with all the great colleges we have in this state and the professional teams that we have. Thank God for `em, especially at times that are rough right now."

The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch was born on July 20, 1929. He played baseball at Detroit's Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers after his four-year stint in the U.S. Marines, spending three years in the team's farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.

But he found his niche in business. His family's companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion in 2011.

It started with that first Little Caesars restaurant in Garden City, a working-class suburb west of Detroit. A food service distribution company soon followed to supply ingredients and other products for the growing number of restaurants. Blue Line Foodservice grew into one of the largest program account food service distribution companies in the U.S.

Ilitch Holdings Inc. was established in 1999 to manage the family's interests in food, sports and entertainment, and the company remained family focused. His son, Christopher, was president and CEO, while his wife, Marian, was vice chairwoman as well as sole owner of MotorCity Casino, one of Detroit's three casinos.

Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had bottomed out to mediocrity, but it began winning again under Ilitch. The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Ilitch was inducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.

"Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are incredibly passionate about Detroit and their teams," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. "They create a family atmosphere with stability, loyalty and a personal touch. But we all understand we have to produce to be around for a long time."

As part of his long-term plan to build a Detroit-based business empire, Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages several restaurants, sports and entertainment venues, in 1982.

Husband and wife bought the downtown Fox Theatre five years later and started a massive, $12 million restoration. It reopened a year later and became a lucrative venue for musicals, plays and other productions. The Little Caesars world headquarters also was moved downtown.

Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 million. He moved it in 2000 from the storied but fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.

Unlike previous owners of both sports franchises, Ilitch opened his checkbook to sign top players -- finding solid success in hockey, and a rollercoaster in baseball.

The Tigers lost an American League record 119 games in 2003, but advanced to the World Series three years later, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Near the end of a disappointing 2008 season, Ilitch said he and the team would review everything done to put the roster together but focusing on the $138 million payroll wasn't the priority.

"I'm not afraid to go out and spend money," he said. "It's been very costly, but I'm not going to change my ways."

The Tigers made the American League playoffs in 2011, a return to winning that brought more fans to Comerica Park.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Ilitch was simply driven to win.

"He has a good feel for sports, baseball in particular, and that's always good when you're working for someone like that," Dombrowski said in 2010, shortly after Ilitch announced he would try to buy the Detroit Pistons. Ilitch had jumped in amid speculation another buyer might move the pro basketball team.

"When I read in the paper there was the chance that this great sports town could lose one of its professional sports franchises, I just didn't see how we could let that happen," Ilitch told The Associated Press in 2010. "The Pistons, just like the Red Wings, Tigers and the (Detroit) Lions, have a rich and storied tradition in this community."

California billionaire and Michigan State University graduate Tom Gores eventually bought the Pistons and kept the team at its stadium in Auburn Hills, north of Detroit.

Ilitch's admiration of Detroit also was put on display in 2009, when General Motors -- struggling under the threat of bankruptcy -- discontinued its sponsorship of the popular General Motors Fountain at Comerica Park. Instead of selling the space to other bidders, Ilitch gave the advertising spot to each of the area's car companies that season at no cost.

"He cares about the city of Detroit. This is something he wanted to do. It's for the Big Three," Ron Colangelo, the Tigers' spokesman, said at the time.

Philanthropy always was a major focus. In 1985, he established the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, a restaurant on wheels to feed the hungry and help with food distribution following national disasters.

Ilitch founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program in 2006 to provide honorably discharged veterans the chance to own a Little Caesars franchise, and his Ilitch Charities invests in programs promoting economic and job growth. Contributions, sponsorships and in-kind donations from the Ilitch companies total more than $4 million per year.

Ilitch is survived by his wife, seven children and numerous grandchildren.

Best of NHL: Bruins snap 4-game skid, beat Islanders, move into playoff position

Best of NHL: Bruins snap 4-game skid, beat Islanders, move into playoff position

NEW YORK -- Riley Nash scored twice and backup goalie Anton Khudobin made 18 saves as the Boston Bruins beat the New York Islanders 2-1 Saturday night, snapping a four-game losing streak.

Nash broke a 1-1 tie with his second goal of the contest at 4:12 of the third period, beating Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss from the slot for his seventh goal of the season. Dominic Moore assisted on the decisive goal, which lifted Boston two points ahead of the Islanders for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

John Tavares scored for New York and Greiss finished with 16 saves.

Tavares had a golden chance to knot the score with just over six minutes left in the third period but rang the puck off the crossbar with the Islanders on their sixth power play of the game (see full recap).

Eichel, Sabres slow Leafs' push to clinch playoff berth
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored twice and set up another goal in the Buffalo Sabres' 5-2 win that slowed the youth-laden Toronto Maple Leafs' late-season surge to clinch a playoff berth.

Ryan O'Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov each had a goal and assist, and Evander Kane also scored in a game the Sabres took control of by scoring three straight times in the second period. Robin Lehner stopped 32 shots, and the Sabres continued their home dominance over their cross-border rivals by improving to 18-2-1 against Toronto in their last 21 games at Buffalo.

The Maple Leafs' hold on third-place in the Atlantic Division dwindled in having a three-game winning streak end and losing in regulation for just the second time in their past 10 (7-2-1). With 85 points, Toronto has a one-point edge over Boston after the Bruins beat the New York Islanders.

Auston Matthews scored his 34th to tie Toronto's single-season rookie record set by Wendel Clark in 1985-86. Connor Brown also scored for Toronto (see full recap).

Marchessault's hat trick helps Panthers blow out Blackhawks
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Jonathan Marchessault scored his first career hat trick, James Reimer stopped 25 shots for his first shutout of the season and the Florida Panthers routed the Chicago Blackhawks 7-0 on Saturday night.

Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and three assists, and Aleksander Barkov added a goal and two assists for Florida. Reilly Smith and Nick Bjugstad also scored to give the Panthers their largest margin of victory since an 8-0 win over Toronto on Feb. 5, 2008.

Marchessault had two goals in a 3-1 win over Arizona on Thursday. He has nine goals over his last nine games and leads the Panthers with 28.

Corey Crawford stopped 21 shots for the Blackhawks before being lifted at 4:59 of the third for Scott Darling, who allowed three goals on six shots.

Already leading 3-0, the Panthers poured in four goals in the third (see full recap).

Caps top Coyotes as Ovechkin reaches 30 goals for 12th straight season
WASHINGTON -- Alex Ovechkin recorded his 30th goal of the season and Daniel Winnik scored two goals, including the game-winner late in the third period, as the Washington Capitals overcame listless stretches to beat the lowly Arizona Coyotes 4-1 on Saturday night.

Ovechkin became the third player in league history to score 30-plus goals in each of his first 12 seasons, joining Mike Gartner (15) and Wayne Gretzky (13).

Winnik scored with 4:39 remaining, Justin Williams added another goal not long and Winnik sealed the Capitals' fourth consecutive victory with an empty-netter.

Braden Holtby made 28 saves for Washington, which has won five of six to reach an NHL-leading 106 points and keep pace atop the competitive Metropolitan Division. The Capitals are three points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mike Smith stopped 29 of the 32 shots he faced and Peter Holland scored the lone goal for Arizona (see full recap).

Flyers-Blue Jackets 10 observations: Strong effort not enough to overcome Sergei Bobrovsky

Flyers-Blue Jackets 10 observations: Strong effort not enough to overcome Sergei Bobrovsky

From Winnipeg to Minnesota to Columbus, the Flyers' final long road trip made its third stop Saturday afternoon in Ohio against a rather imposing Blue Jackets team.

The Blue Jackets clinched a playoff berth earlier in the week and in this one, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky earned his seventh shutout with a 1-0 victory -- his 40th this season, which is a career-high and a Columbus franchise record (see game story).

Dave Hakstol's team played a ferocious game -- two in succession now -- and demonstrated the urgency needed, even though its playoff odds took another turn for the worse.

The overall impact on the wild card remained temporarily unknown because of the Bruins-Islanders game to be played later Saturday night, but regardless of who wins, the Flyers will fall eight points out of the wild card.

The Flyers end their four-game road trip Sunday night in Pittsburgh in the back end of the back-to-back, where Steve Mason is expected to start in net.

Here are 10 things I think, I think.
 
1. Nationwide Arena hasn't been kind to the Flyers, who are now 0-5-5 in the building since December 2008. To say the Blue Jackets own the Flyers would be an understatement given they've won 13 of the last 15 games going back to Dec. 21, 2013.
 
2. Hakstol dusted off Michal Neuvirth for the front end of this back-to-back. Neuvirth's only start before Saturday was March 9 in Toronto, when Hakstol came under criticism for using him instead of riding Mason, who was on a 3-0-1 hot streak at the time. Saturday was just Neuvirth's third appearance in March, including in relief at New Jersey on March 16. He's been understandably rusty, yet he was very good in this game.
 
3. Hakstol, as he often does after a win, stuck with the same lineup he used during Thursday's 3-1 victory in Minnesota, which meant that rookie Travis Konecny -- who played less than 10 minutes against the Wild -- was again buried on the fourth line. He finished with 12:17 against the Blue Jackets.
 
4. Hakstol has pulled his goalie many times in the past with almost two minutes left on the clock. Why did he wait until the final 48 seconds Saturday to pull Neuvirth? What did he have to lose with a playoff berth on the line?
 
5. There is little question the Flyers' trading of Bobrovsky ranks among their top five worst trades in club history orchestrated just because of the team's enormous monetary commitment to Ilya Bryzgalov, who is chasing bears in the woods of South Jersey these days. All "Bob" has done in Columbus is win a Vezina Trophy and is the favorite for the award again this season. He is also among the candidates this season for the Hart Trophy. Bobrovsky came into the game 7-1 against the Flyers all-time with a 1.85 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Bobrovsky had three saves on Wayne Simmonds alone in a scoreless first period and finished with 36 overall.
 
6. Nick Foligno has always been a Flyers killer over his career. The talented winger came into play with 21 points (14 goals) in 28 career games against the orange and black. The flyers shut him down Saturday, as Foligno had just two shots in the game.
 
7. The Flyers' penalty kill units were active with their sticks and attacking the puck on Columbus from all sides -- not allowing the Jackets a good setup. Ian Laperriere's PK units improved toward the end of this trip. The Blue Jackets were 0 for 2.
 
8. An unfortunate break of the stick for Simmonds led to Columbus' only goal late in the second period off an Alex Wennberg redirection. If Simmonds had his stick, Kyle Quincey doesn't outreach him for the puck near the blue line. Instead, it's a shot on net that's deflected for the eventual game-winner.
 
9. The Flyers' second power-play unit with Jordan Weal and Konecny produced four shots in the closing minutes of that second period, but again Bobrovsky was the ultimate difference then and in the final eight seconds with a save on Jakub Voracek and subsequent rebound scrum in front. Joey Mullen's power play has collapsed at the end -- 3 for 43 during the month of March. It was 0 for 3 in this game.
 
10. No criticism of the Flyers in this one. They did everything they could to win. That's all you can ask against a goalie that outright owns you. Again, however, the level of desperation they showed in this and the Wild loss should have been exhibited over a month ago.