For more years than he was a winner in Detroit sports, Mike Ilitch was a meddling, mediocre owner of two of the city’s teams. He often thought he knew best, but it didn’t always work out.
In 1985, early in his tenure as owner of the Detroit Red Wings, Ilitch handpicked his head coach, and the results were disastrous.
A self-made man and a former professional ballplayer, Ilitch fixed his eyes on owning one of Detroit’s teams in the 1970s. If he couldn’t get one of them, he made his own success by fielding the most expensive slow-pitch softball and youth hockey teams in the country. Those successes gave him the idea that everything he touched turned to gold.
The Detroit Free Press called Ilitch “a guy accustomed to tossing a wad of dough into the air and catching a winner.”
Ilitch tried to buy the Detroit Tigers from John Fetzer in 1981 and again in 1982, only to be turned down.
“I can’t believe the team owners in town,” Ilitch once said. “I’d spend every penny I have to be the best. That’s what sports are all about. That’s what a team owner should be all about. It’s a matter of pride — if you don’t have it or aren’t willing, then stay the hell out and let somebody else do it.”
The Little Caesars owner finally got his team in 1982 when he plunked down $8 million for the Red Wings. The team was in shabby condition, no longer one of the league’s premier franchises. Since their last appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1966, the Wings had made the playoffs only twice. The roster was sprinkled with used-to-be’s and never-wases, with a few never-gonna-be’s as well. But Ilitch, as he always did, felt all the team needed was his masterful guidance.
In the second year he owned the team, Ilitch’s Wings made the playoffs. They repeated the following year. But in those days the top four teams in each division advanced to the postseason tournament, even if they were losers. And losers the Wings were.
Before the 1985-86 season, Ilitch decided to throw his money around.
Devellano was handed a checkbook by Ilitch and given a green light to spend. The team went on a spending spree, signing free agents Warren Young, Harold Snepsts, Mike McEwen, and college hopefuls Tim Friday, Dale Krentz, and Ray Staszak. After all that money was taken out of the Little Caesars Pizza Safe, Ilitch had visions that his hockey team could climb up the NHL hierarchy.
“We’re going for it,” the pizza magnate told his fans and the Detroit media.
Devellano lured a new head coach to the Motor City: Harry Neale, a jockey lifer whose credentials included a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1982 with Vancouver, and success as a head coach in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s.
Some observers took notice. And in September, Sports Illustrated did a multi-page spread on the Red Wings. Could the franchise return to the glory days of the 1960s and 1950s?
But it was apparent on opening night of the season that the team was flawed. Detroit blew a six-goal lead to tie the North Stars. A few nights later they saw the Bruins score nine goals against them, and a few days later lost 6-1, before taking it on the chin by scores of 10-1 (Minnesota again), and 5-0 by the Canucks. The Wings allowed 58 goals in their first nine games and were 0-8-1. Improvement never came: on November 11, the team was 2-9-4, and in December in the midst of a nine-game losing skid, their head coach went off.
“Every team makes drastic errors,” an exasperated Neale said in December. “But we’re 33 games into the season, and we’re still making them consistently. They could bring in God, and I don’t think he could keep them from making mistakes.”
Within days, Ilitch was seeking a replacement for Neale, and he did it in typical Ilitch fashion: on his own. The owner skipped over his GM and made a search himself. Not surprisingly, it was someone very close to him that ended up getting the job.
Since he had played his final NHL game for the Red Wings the previous season, former defenseman Brad Park had earned Ilitch’s ear. On December 29, Ilitch fired Neale and named Park as his replacement. Park, a nine-time All-Star in 17 NHL seasons, had zero head coaching experience at any level.
“There are only two places I would consider coaching. One is here, and the other is Boston,” Park said.
Park had been a winning player, which seemed to be the primary reason Ilitch tapped him to take over the dumpster fire that was the 1985-86 season in late December. In 17 years as one of the game’s best defenders, Park had never failed to make the playoffs. He even guaranteed the Wings would fix their problems and still make the playoffs in 1986.
“We’ll have this thing turned around in six weeks,” Park boldly predicted.
“The only thing I lack right now is coaching experience,” Park said. “The one thing I do know is how to win. I’m going to make some mistakes, but I’m going to learn from my mistakes.”
Detroit’s record was 8-23-4 when Park was hired. They went 1-8-1 in the first 10 games under Park, still allowing opposing teams to score almost at will. Park’s team surrendered 58 goals in the first 10 games after he took over. Six weeks after his prediction, Park had guided the hapless Red Wings to a 4-15-1 record. They finished out the season with only 17 wins and a last place finish. Their 40 points were 14 fewer than any other team in the league.
Devellano never wanted Park, and fired him quickly after the end of the season.
“Right from the start, I was never comfortable with him,” the Detroit GM said. “We were like oil and water, which don’t mix.
“Very quickly I realized that we had different ideas of how to run a hockey team, and how to run a franchise. We just never agreed on player evaluations, or even how the game should played.”
A major difference between Devellano and Park emerged rapidly after the former All-Star was hired. Park explained in his introductory press conference that he wanted to introduce “intelligent hockey” to the team. But the team became unnecessarily physical and found itself embroiled in several brawls and controversies. In a game against Toronto, Park ordered three players off the bench to join a melee on the ice, a no-no. For that decision he drew the ire of Maple Leafs coach Dan Maloney, and was summoned to a meeting with the NHL commissioner.
“So I made a mistake,” Park admitted after the incident. “I’m a rookie coach. I’ll tell you one thing, in all my years playing hockey, I never knew of a player going over the boards without being told by his coach first.”
Devellano seethed at the thuggish style of play, which didn’t change the abysmal results on the ice anyway.
As he had been as a player, Park was defiant and outspoken, even as he was shown the door in Detroit.
“Everybody seems to be worried about the mistakes I made in three months, and not all the mistakes Jimmy Devellano has made in four years,” Park said. “Sure, we had problems, but I thought they could be resolved next season.”
A few weeks after Park was fired, Devellano hired Jacques Demers away from the St. Louis Blues. In his first two seasons in Detroit, the Frenchman led the Wings to the Conference Finals.
Park never coached again, which says all you need to know about his acumen behind the bench. Devellano spent more than three decades with the Red Wings, as GM, and later VP. He helped build a playoff team, lured the Russian Five to Michigan, and won two Stanley Cup titles in the 1990s. He often found himself having to stiff arm Ilitch to keep the meddling owner at bay, but he thrived and was successful at implementing his plans for the franchise.