The Detroit Red Wings, not Tigers, are Mike Ilitch’s favorite team


This is the second article this week where Octopus Thrower compares the two teams of the Ilitch Empire: The Detroit Red Wings and The Detroit Tigers. Today we look at why the Red Wings, and not the Tigers as so many think, are Ilitch’s true favorite. 

I’ve had a good chuckle at the debate over the Tigers being buyers or sellers. For the past 24 seasons, the conversation has never taken place for the Red Wings. Worse, the only reason given for the Tigers “buying” is that time’s running out for Mike Ilitch to win his coveted World Series championship. Look, since the Tigers are the 1-A to my Red Wings 1-B in terms of team hierarchy, I want nothing more than to see the Tigs finally put it together. I also understand Mr. Ilitch’s insistence on winning now because time is precious. He’s 86 and he wants to see it happen. But the media’s yarn of how badly he’s always wanted this–well–I’ve never really bought it. Yes, he wants the championship like any good owner would. But it wasn’t always the case. The Red Wings are, and always will be Ilitch’s favorite team.

Tigers fans went ballistic in 2001 when Ilitch said he wanted to mold his team after the Minnesota Twins–a franchise that relied on strong drafting and thrifty spending to find success.

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While Juan Gonzalez turned down a then record contract to leave Detroit after only one year

, there was little evidence that Ilitch cared about the Tigers as much as he did for his Wings. In fact, the Tigers seemed to be the forgotten team. This would be trumpeted loudly after the 2003 season, when Ilitch had no choice but to start spending for his national embarrassment of a team. There was

skepticism from fans when he said he would spend. 

The wallet did open. Dombrowski rebuilt the team through trades, drafts, and free agency. Meanwhile, the Big Red Machine kept humming along, reloading and dominating even after a salary cap tied its hands behind its back.

When Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982, he was all in. He went out and paid Jimmy Devellano a lot of money to leave the New York Islanders juggernaut to jump start a moribund hockey franchise. He raffled off cars at games to get fans to come and watch. He spent well, and put the right people in place to try and make the Red Wings relevant again. And when he didn’t win, he doubled down. 24 years of playoff success, some of the highest payrolls in hockey in the 90’s and early aughts attest to that.  He didn’t blink matching Sergei Fedorov’s offer sheet from Carolina in 1998. He sunk money in franchise corner stones Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom. With the Red Wings, money was never an option. The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups and remained relevant because of sound drafting, and consistency in strategy. And of course, money flow.

This wasn’t the case with the Tigers until 2004. Now, I certainly understand that the finances were different, and that owning two teams is taxing to the bottom line. But the Tigers were never given the attention the Red Wings were. Ilitch didn’t get the “best” in Randy Smith.

Ilitch has always gone about things the patient way with the Red Wings. The right way. When something is worked on with care, it’s a labor of love. That’s the Detroit Red Wings. The Tigers, from the inception of Ilitch’s ownership, have always been this “throw-together” to win as quickly as possible.

He hired a guy who he thought could win cheap.

Ask any Tiger fan how that worked out

.  Smith was allowed to stay on during a horrible stretch that saw terrible drafting, ridiculous trades, and God-awful free agent signings. (Bip Roberts is still a punchline with my brother and me).

Contrast that with the Wings. Bryan Murray was removed when he couldn’t sustain success. Ilitch went out and got the best coach in the game, Scotty Bowman, to finally give the Wings a chance to win it all. The Tigers? Well, with Smith presiding over a decade long tire fire, he forced the legendary Sparky Anderson out because of his resistance to manage replacement players. Then it went like this – Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols, Alan Trammell, and finally Jim Leyland. Time period? 1996-2006. From 1993-2015, the Red Wings had three coaches: Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, and Mike Babcock.

With the Red Wings, everything was done with patience and zeal. With the Tigers, the mindset always seemed to change as to how to win. First the budget changed. Then the strategies. I’ve always wondered what would have happened had the salary cap never been instituted in hockey. Would the Little Caesars Vault remain open for both teams?

Here’s the deal: I’m not here to rag on Ilitch. But the myth that Ilitch has always chased after that World Series title is just that: it’s a myth. Ilitch bought the team in 1992, and the team had only one winning season from 1993 until 2005. That’s 12 years. Thirteen seasons. 1996-2002 had Smith running the team into the ground, and it took Dave Dombrowski three throw away seasons to re-stock the team and make it competitive. 2005 was when the Tigers started their trend upwards. 2006 was when they became a real threat. There’s no doubt he’s been all-in ever since that depressing 2003 season. Again, the Red Wings only went off the rails once in a quarter of a decade. Heads rolled immediately.

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Don’t make this what it isn’t. We all want Ilitch to win and add another accolade to his unbelievable legacy in Detroit. But he should do what’s best for the Tigers organization, which is selling away parts to rebuild quickly, much as he’s trusted Ken Holland to do with the Red Wings.

Ilitch has always gone about things the patient way with the Red Wings. The right way. When something is worked on with care, it’s a labor of love. That’s the Detroit Red Wings. The Tigers, from the inception of Ilitch’s ownership, have always been this “throw-together” to win as quickly as possible. It’s why they’re now four games under .500 after dominating the division for the past four seasons. There’s always been this rush for success with the Tigers. And it’s shown time and time again to not work–whether it’s a crappy bullpen or a misguided contract to a disgruntled superstar.

Ilitch absolutely loves the Tigers. Just not as much as he loves his Red Wings.

Next: The Top 5 Left Wings in Detroit Red Wings History