TORONTO â€” Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock were both visibly saddened Saturday morning by the passing of long-time Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Illitch.
The president and head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs both offered glowing reviews of Illitch from their respective tenures in Detroit, which included three Stanley Cups as a player for Shanahan and one as a head coach for Babcock.
“He made you want to be a better man,” Babcock said of Illitch who passed away at age 87 in a Detroit hospital on Friday. “He was committed to doing things right and what he touched in business turned to gold. But he had that presence about him that he made you want to be better.”
“He was such a passionate sportsman, but his family always welcomed us,” added Shanahan. “They knew the players. They knew the wives, the girlfriends, the kids. We all got to made feel like we were part of his family.”
Shanahan, who played 716 regular season games with the Wings and another 106 in the playoffs, said Illitch and his wife Marian referred affectionately to players as their “boys”.
“Sometimes we were 35, 40-years-old but we were still their boys,” Shanahan said.
Babcock said the Illitch family, also owners of the Detroit Tigers, set up an “expectation of success” during his decade-long run as coach of the Wings.
“Some people make you come in earlier,” Babcock said. “They don’t say nothing. They just show up every day and they grind and they make you grind. And that to me was what he was.”
Babcock and Shanahan both credited Illitch and his family for inspiring the ongoing revitalization of Detroit’s downtown, which will include a new arena for the Wings next season.
Shanahan described Illitch as a competitive sort who wouldn’t often venture down to the team’s dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, but when he did players took notice. There was one regular season game against Boston in particular, Shanahan said, when Illitch was particularly driven to beat the Bruins following a board meeting clash with that club’s ownership the previous summer.
“He didn’t have to say a word to us,” Shanahan said. “We knew exactly why he was there. We made sure that we weren’t sleeping through that one.”
“Great, great man,” Babcock said.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press