Mike Illitch died on Friday.

To many students on this campus, that doesn't mean a thing. You might know him as the founder of Little Caesars pizza, and if you're a sports fan you might remember him as the owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings.

Unless you grew up in Michigan or the southernmost regions of Ontario, Mr. I, as he was known, wouldn't be on your mind. But as someone who grew up an hour from downtown Detroit, minus the roughly half hour wait at the Ambassador Bridge, Friday was a somber day.

I probably wouldn't be a Red Wings or Tigers fan today if it wasn't for Illitch. And the city of Detroit, known for its crime rates and population decline and rust belt deterioration, would likely be much worse if it wasn't for the Illitch family.

It's impossible to overstate just how iconic Illitch was for those who grew up in and around Detroit. In an era of penny-pinching sports owners, Illitch opened his pocketbook to bring success to the Motor City.

Tigers fans wouldn't have been able to watch the legendary Tigers teams of the last decade with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander without Illitch.

And Detroit wouldn't be "Hockeytown" without Mike Illitch. Under his reign the city saw four Stanley Cup parades.

He put Detroit on the map. He made it cool to root for Detroit. And no city in America needed it more.

Detroit was once a vibrant American town, the fourth largest in the country. But once manufacturing became obsolete, so too did Detroit. The auto industry, its economic bread and butter, fell apart. The doors of its houses were shuttered. Its walls crumbled. Its schools were in tumult. Its mayor went to jail.

But there was hope. And there still is. Hope that one day Detroit can return to greatness. Hope that what men like Mike Illitch did to keep the city alive can now make it thrive.

Stories have been written all weekend of the money Illitch poured into the community to improve it. But there was something more intangible than financial support that he gave to Detroit.

He sent it into party mode. His singular pursuit of championships became a staple of my childhood.

I'm 20 years old now. It's hard for most sports fans to understand how lucky myself and my fellow Red Wings fans have been.

The Wings have made the playoffs 25 straight seasons. No city in America has embraced an NHL team quite like Detroit has.

That's what an owner like Illitch will do. The man who turned a mom-and-pop pizza place into a financial empire always went for the biggest free agents. He didn't shy away from making changes in the chase for titles.

The Tigers championship never came. But he gave Detroit sports fans some of our greatest memories. I will always cherish those fall nights watching the Tigers in the postseason, holding my breath for Miggy Cabrera to hit a walk-off bomb or for Justin Verlander to retire the final batter for the win.

Illitch changed the face of Detroit, the city he cared for so deeply. He renovated the Fox Theatre, moved the Tigers into Comerica Park and, next season, orchestrated the move for the Red Wings from the iconic Joe Louis Arena into the state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena.

It's a shame he'll never get to see that move come to fruition. But the entertainment district built around the new arena will transform Detroit into something special.

And that's thanks to Mr. I.

I feel so many parts of my childhood coming to an end. 

The Red Wings are in rebuilding mode and the playoff streak will likely end this year.

The Tigers are now in cost cutting mode. It will be years until we see another team like the one Illitch built.

But Detroit, as a city, is rising from the ashes. And it's in no small part thanks to Mike Illitch.

One of the greatest sons of, what will always be to me, the greatest city in the world.

Mike is a sports editor for Volume 110 of the Gazette. He is currently a third year history major. Contact Mike at mike@westerngazette.ca.

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