How Detroit Red Wings changed in the 40 years since Mike Ilitch bought team from Norris

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings were in miserable shape.

It was spring 1982. The team was losing, the front office was in disarray, and ownership was grasping for direction. The Original Six franchise, once a Stanley Cup dynasty home to some of the biggest legends in the game, had declined into a laughingstock — referred to as “the Dead Wings” and “the worst team money can buy.”

It took a self-made local pizza baron who had wooed his future wife at Olympia Stadium to come to the rescue.

This spring marks 40 years since Mike Ilitch bought the Wings, ending 50 years of Norris family ownership. The sale heralded change and hinted a return to championships.

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Decline under Norris

When Bruce Norris grabbed control of the Wings from his sister, Marguerite, in 1955, the Stanley Cup had been hoisted in Detroit for the fourth time in six seasons. Marguerite and Bruce inherited the team from their father, James E. Norris, after his death in 1952.

James had parlayed his industrial wealth into ownership of a budding hockey franchise in Detroit in 1932. Montreal-born and Chicago-based, James had unsuccessfully bid for established teams in Chicago and St. Louis before investing in what was then the Detroit Falcons, and their new arena, Olympia. The franchise had been in receivership.

Through grain and cattle ownership, James had the financial means to pump money into his team, which he rechristened the Red Wings. By 1934, they were good enough to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals, and in 1936, won their first championship. James lived in Chicago, but coach and general manager Jack Adams called him from the locker room after games to keep him updated.

The Wings won five Cups under James. Marguerite and Bruce shared the inheritance, but in his will, James named Marguerite president. A woman running an NHL team was unprecedented, but the old man knew what he was doing.

The Wings finished first in all three seasons under Marguerite’s leadership, and won the Cup in 1954 and 1955. She was 25 years old when she took control, yet she deftly handled Adams, the cantankerous, trade-happy veteran 33 years her senior.

Unfortunately for the Wings, she was ousted by her brother after a power struggle. Bruce lacked Marguerite’s backbone, and let Adams trade Terry Sawchuk and Ted Lindsay, among others. The Wings played for the Cup again in 1956, but lost to Montreal. They lost in the first round in 1957 and 1958 and failed to qualify in 1959, finishing sixth in a six-team league.

The Wings made the playoffs six times from 1960-69, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals in ’61, ’63, ’64 and ’66, but another title was elusive. (That didn’t stop the Hockey Hall of Fame from inducting Bruce in 1969; Marguerite, the two-time Cup winner and the first woman to have her name engraved on the Cup, has not been inducted.)

It was a challenging time for a franchise used to winning — but it was only the beginning of the decline. The Wings failed to qualify for the playoffs for seven straight seasons beginning in 1970. In 1971, Gordie Howe retired. In 1977, Lindsay was hired as general manager. The Wings made the playoffs his first year, but under his management, the payroll had surpassed $5 million, the highest in NHL history at the time. He was replaced in April 1980 by Jimmy Skinner, who hung a large oil painting of Adams in his office at Joe Louis Arena. When things were going badly, Skinner would talk to the portrait.

The Wings began the 1980s as they had begun the previous decade: Failing to make the playoffs (despite the NHL’s postseason now including 16 of 21 teams). They won 19 games in 1980-81. In 1982, the Norris family celebrated 50 years of ownership. Bruce was at the game when it was announced to the crowd, and was soundly booed. He had lost millions on the team, and on March 9, 1982, he announced his intention to sell.

Finding a buyer

Norris had put the club up for sale when the Wings moved into Joe Louis Arena in 1979, but a $20 million price tag and the condition that Norris, as operator of the arena, would receive 15% of every Red Wing ticket sold as stadium rental deterred interest. But in 1982, Bruce was ready to deal.

All that was left was to find the right buyer. Ilitch had tried to buy the Wings in the summer of 1981 but his $11 million bid was rejected. Other names surfaced in connection with the sale: former Detroit Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt and University of Michigan athletic director Don Canham. Norris ended up selling the Wings to Ilitch for $8 million. (In December 2021, Forbes Magazine valued the franchise at $990 million.)

Ilitch had grown up a Wings fan, then courted his future wife, Marian, at Olympia Stadium. When he was introduced as the new owner on June 3, 1982, Ilitch proclaimed, “I love the Red Wings. I remember coming to Olympia Stadium as a tot in the back of a panel truck sitting on an orange crate, parking a half a mile away from Olympia so we wouldn’t have to pay, running as fast as I could to get up to the balcony.”

Iltich was 52 when he bought the Wings. His pizza company, Little Caesars, operated in nine states and had 300 stores. The Ilitches had used his savings from a two-year stint in the Detroit Tigers farm system to open a restaurant in 1959, naming it Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat after Marian’s nickname for Mike.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to have a winner,” Ilitch told the Free Press in 1982. “I’m going to spend the money and do whatever it takes to get myself a winner. If it takes losing money, I’ll lose money, but there’s a point of no return.

“I want to find my niche. If that means patting the players on the butt when they come out of the dressing room, then I’ll pat butts. … If it means traveling with them on road trips, I’m going to do it. If it means keeping a distant profile to be effective, I’ll do it. I’m not sure what it’s going to take yet, but I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

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Unlike Bruce Norris, who ran the Wings from his homes in Chicago and Florida, Ilitch was a daily presence. He considered adding a third color to the uniform. He authorized a mascot (a chicken named “The Red Winger.”). He advertised in newspapers that a new era was beginning. On opening night, 17,343 fans treated Ilitch to a standing ovation when he was introduced on the ice before the game. Ilitch cried.

Revival under Ilitch

As a young fan attending games at Olympia, Ilitch sat in the balcony. As an owner, he could sit anywhere he wanted at The Joe. When the team began the season with a seven-game winless streak, Ilitch spent one game directly behind his team’s bench, ensuring players returning from a shift stared directly at the guy who paid their salaries.

There wasn’t much to cheer the first season: The Wings won 21 games, and failed to qualify for the playoffs for a fifth straight season. The best move Ilitch made his first year was to hire Jimmy Devellano as general manager. Devellano had won three Cups with the New York Islanders, with whom he had served as scout and assistant general manager. He told his new boss he’d win a championship within eight years.

It took nearly twice as long.

Devellano sold Ilitch on building the Wings through the draft. In 1983, it was no secret the Wings wanted Pat LaFontaine. He was a supremely gifted forward from the Detroit area, the perfect hometown hero around which to rebuild the franchise and boost ticket sales. But the Islanders grabbed LaFontaine at No. 3, and the Wings settled for Steve Yzerman at No. 4.

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He was a consolation that would lead to celebration after celebration.

The 1983 draft injected hope into the Wings. Yzerman was quiet but effective, a skilled forward whose stardom was obvious when he stepped on the ice for training camp in fall 1983. Bob Probert (drafted No. 46 overall) and Joey Kocur (No. 88 overall) enthralled fans with their fisticuffs, and Petr Klima (No. 86 overall) with his ability to score goals. The Wings were bounced in the first round of the 1984 playoffs — but at least they were back at the event. Yzerman was named captain in 1986. In 1987, the Wings advanced to the conference finals. They did the same in 1988. (Both years, Ilitch doubled his players’ $13,000 playoff shares to show his appreciation.) In 1989, the Wings drafted Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round (No. 53 overall), Sergei Fedorov in the fourth (at No. 74), and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th (at No. 221).

In 1993, Ilitch signed off on hiring Scotty Bowman, who already had coached six Stanley Cup winners. Ilitch went to see him personally and was at Bowman’s introductory news conference.

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“I think it’s time to win the Stanley Cup, and Scotty Bowman will give us our best opportunity,” Ilitch said. Ilitch backed up his belief with his bucks: Bowman’s deal was worth $800,000 annually in base salary, making him the NHL’s highest-paid coach.

Ilitch proved how much the Cup meant to him again in October 1996, when he sent his private jet to Hartford, Connecticut, to pick up Brendan Shanahan, newly acquired in a blockbuster trade, in time for the home opener. Ilitch put his money and his trust in his people. When Bowman wanted to trade a 50-goal scorer for an undersized forward just shy of his 35th birthday in October 1995, off went Ray Sheppard and in came Igor Larionov, the final piece needed for the Russian Five.

Ilitch had been hungry to restore the franchise to glory in 1982. He had to wait 15 years for it to happen, but when it did, it was perfect. On June 7, 1997, the Wings completed a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers before a jubilant, joyous home crowd. Mike and Marian Ilitch were on the bench as soon as the buzzer sounded on a 2-1 victory. Ilitch was clad in a varsity jacket bearing a Wings emblem and a Wings hat. Marian was next to him, wearing red. They leaned over and gave the Stanley Cup a quick pat as its handlers walked by on the way to Yzerman.

“I feel fantastic,” a grinning Ilitch said. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. Sometimes I wondered if we’d see it through to the end. But one of my strengths is perseverance, and we hung in there.”

The Wings won the Cup again in 1998. In 2002, they were the best team money could buy, adding Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Dominik Hasek to the mix of superstars. Even as those luminaries retired or left, the Wings were an exciting team to watch and brought fans to The Joe. They had a sell-out streak at the arena that spanned 452 games, from Dec. 10, 1996-April 7, 2007. In 2008, the Wings won the franchise’s 11th Stanley Cup, the most for a U.S. team.

Mike Ilitch died Feb. 10, 2017. During his time as owner, the Wings won four Stanley Cups while missing the playoffs only three times. His son, Christopher Ilitch, became governor, president and CEO of the Wings.

The Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons in the spring of 2017. They rose to glory under Ilitch thanks to the draft and his willingness to spend money, but in the four decades of Ilitch family ownership, the NHL has expanded from 21 teams to 32 and instituted a salary cap.

In 1983, a year into Ilitch ownership, the Wings tied their hopes of revival to their prize draft pick, Steve Yzerman. In 2019, he was brought back into the fold, hired as general manager in the hopes of building another dynasty under Ilitch ownership.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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