Flyers

Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dies at 87

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Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dies at 87

DETROIT – Mike Ilitch, founder of the Little Caesars Pizza empire and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, has died. He was 87.

Ilitch, who was praised for keeping his professional hockey and baseball teams in Detroit as other urban sports franchises relocated to new suburban stadiums, died Friday at a hospital in Detroit, according to family spokesman Doug Kuiper.

Ilitch and his wife, Marian, founded Little Caesars in suburban Detroit in 1959, and eventually grew the business into the world's largest carry-out pizza chain with several spin-off companies. Under his ownership and open checkbook, the Red Wings soared back to stability and won four Stanley Cup championships, and the Tigers -- who'd scouted a young Ilitch in the 1940s -- made it to the World Series.

He was as much a fan of the often-struggling Detroit as he was of sports. When approached in 2009 by organizers of the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, Ilitch agreed to sponsor the annual college football bowl game despite a poor local economy. The game was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

"It's a sporting event, and we need sporting events," Ilitch said at the time. "It picks our community up to no end, with all the great colleges we have in this state and the professional teams that we have. Thank God for `em, especially at times that are rough right now."

The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch was born on July 20, 1929. He played baseball at Detroit's Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers after his four-year stint in the U.S. Marines, spending three years in the team's farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.

But he found his niche in business. His family's companies had combined revenues of $2.4 billion in 2011.

It started with that first Little Caesars restaurant in Garden City, a working-class suburb west of Detroit. A food service distribution company soon followed to supply ingredients and other products for the growing number of restaurants. Blue Line Foodservice grew into one of the largest program account food service distribution companies in the U.S.

Ilitch Holdings Inc. was established in 1999 to manage the family's interests in food, sports and entertainment, and the company remained family focused. His son, Christopher, was president and CEO, while his wife, Marian, was vice chairwoman as well as sole owner of MotorCity Casino, one of Detroit's three casinos.

Ilitch broke into sports ownership in 1982, when he paid a reported $8 million for the struggling Red Wings. Once a National Hockey League powerhouse, the team had bottomed out to mediocrity, but it began winning again under Ilitch. The Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Ilitch was inducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame a year later.

"Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch are incredibly passionate about Detroit and their teams," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. "They create a family atmosphere with stability, loyalty and a personal touch. But we all understand we have to produce to be around for a long time."

As part of his long-term plan to build a Detroit-based business empire, Ilitch also bought Olympia Entertainment, which manages several restaurants, sports and entertainment venues, in 1982.

Husband and wife bought the downtown Fox Theatre five years later and started a massive, $12 million restoration. It reopened a year later and became a lucrative venue for musicals, plays and other productions. The Little Caesars world headquarters also was moved downtown.

Then, in 1992, the man who once dreamed of playing for the Detroit Tigers bought the team for $85 million. He moved it in 2000 from the storied but fading Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park, across from the Fox Theatre.

Unlike previous owners of both sports franchises, Ilitch opened his checkbook to sign top players -- finding solid success in hockey, and a rollercoaster in baseball.

The Tigers lost an American League record 119 games in 2003, but advanced to the World Series three years later, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Near the end of a disappointing 2008 season, Ilitch said he and the team would review everything done to put the roster together but focusing on the $138 million payroll wasn't the priority.

"I'm not afraid to go out and spend money," he said. "It's been very costly, but I'm not going to change my ways."

The Tigers made the American League playoffs in 2011, a return to winning that brought more fans to Comerica Park.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Ilitch was simply driven to win.

"He has a good feel for sports, baseball in particular, and that's always good when you're working for someone like that," Dombrowski said in 2010, shortly after Ilitch announced he would try to buy the Detroit Pistons. Ilitch had jumped in amid speculation another buyer might move the pro basketball team.

"When I read in the paper there was the chance that this great sports town could lose one of its professional sports franchises, I just didn't see how we could let that happen," Ilitch told The Associated Press in 2010. "The Pistons, just like the Red Wings, Tigers and the (Detroit) Lions, have a rich and storied tradition in this community."

California billionaire and Michigan State University graduate Tom Gores eventually bought the Pistons and kept the team at its stadium in Auburn Hills, north of Detroit.

Ilitch's admiration of Detroit also was put on display in 2009, when General Motors -- struggling under the threat of bankruptcy -- discontinued its sponsorship of the popular General Motors Fountain at Comerica Park. Instead of selling the space to other bidders, Ilitch gave the advertising spot to each of the area's car companies that season at no cost.

"He cares about the city of Detroit. This is something he wanted to do. It's for the Big Three," Ron Colangelo, the Tigers' spokesman, said at the time.

Philanthropy always was a major focus. In 1985, he established the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, a restaurant on wheels to feed the hungry and help with food distribution following national disasters.

Ilitch founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program in 2006 to provide honorably discharged veterans the chance to own a Little Caesars franchise, and his Ilitch Charities invests in programs promoting economic and job growth. Contributions, sponsorships and in-kind donations from the Ilitch companies total more than $4 million per year.

Ilitch is survived by his wife, seven children and numerous grandchildren.

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

It looks as though Travis Sanheim will sit for the second straight game vs. the Panthers tonight (see Flyers-Panthers thoughts)

Now, before you get angry — and fire off a hot take about Andrew MacDonald or Brandon Manning — understand this isn’t a death sentence for Sanheim.

The Flyers have played all of five games this season. Sanheim has played in three, and after a bumpy NHL debut vs. the Kings, the talented rookie showed growth to round out the Flyers’ season-opening road trip (see Flyers Rookie Report)

“I think that the L.A. game was a bit of a wash, with it being my first game and it not going the way I wanted it to,” Sanheim said. “But I thought the other two games, you started to see some more of the way I want to play. I thought even into the Nashville game, I got better that night, as well. I think that’s what you want to see with a young guy, is getting better every night and I’ll continue to do that.”

And after watching from the press box during Saturday’s blowout win vs. the Capitals, the Flyers’ top defensive prospect will get his chances ... at some point. 

“I don’t have a number for you, there,” Hakstol said of when we could see Sanheim crack the lineup. “But your players have to play. That doesn’t mean they have to play every game, but certainly they have to learn, both off the ice, on the ice, practice, game-wise and continue to grow.”

So Sanheim — who is a minus-two with zero points — has to learn the NHL game. It’s not uncommon for rookie defensemen to struggle with the speed and skill of the NHL in the early parts of their careers.

“The position is a hard position to make the adjustment to and to learn,” Hakstol said. “That being said, I think your players can be successful in making the jump and making the transition.”

If Sanheim needs any inspiration, he simply needs to look a few lockers down at Ivan Provorov. 

Provorov made the jump straight from the WHL (junior hockey) to the NHL last season, and early on, it wasn’t a particularly smooth transition. The then 19-year-old bottomed out at a minus-five in an October loss to Chicago but blossomed into the team’s No. 1 defenseman in the second half of the season.

Sure, Sanheim has taken his lumps this season, but he hasn’t necessarily been bad. Hakstol even went as far as to say that he’s been happy with the 21-year-old’s play.

“I’ve been very happy with him, Hakstol said. “I’ve been happy with Travis’ play. We want him to keep growing. He’s going to continue to be a big part of our group. He’s got a great attitude and a great perspective in terms of being able to handle all the different situations that come his way.”

Sanheim says the coaching staff hasn’t ordered him to focus on any one aspect of his game, but after Tuesday’s optional morning skate, the rookie stayed on the ice for an extra 30 minutes with the staff and Jori Lehtera — who has been a healthy scratch for all five games this season — working on clearing the crease. 

It all comes down to the numbers. And right now, the Flyers have seven solid defensemen. 

“The other night (Saturday vs. Capitals), obviously I wanted to be in the lineup, but we've got seven good D right now and obviously there’s going to be a guy sitting, and it just happened to be me the other night,” Sanheim said. “It was a learning experience. I think I can gain a lot from watching and seeing some of those guys, how they handle themselves in certain situations and I thought I gained a lot from it the other night.

Not convinced? Last season, rookie winger Travis Konecny and second-year D-man Shayne Gostisbehere both served multiple stints in Hakstol’s doghouse — the press box — and have seemingly turned things around to begin this season. This year, Gostisbehere is second on the team in points with eight, while, more importantly, he and Konecny are both a plus-two on the year — good enough for a tie for third on the team. So, like it or not, maybe there is some good to sitting a young player for a few games. 

“Ultimately, as a young guy, I think there’s a lot of things you need to work on and for me, its just working hard in practice and getting better every day,” Sanheim said. “I just want to try and establish myself as an everyday player. 

“I’ve been through this before. My first year of junior, I didn’t play right away and I was a healthy scratch for five games there, so I’ve been through the process before and I understand the situation that I’m in and ultimately, it’s up to me whether I want to play every night and I gotta show them that I’m deserving of that and obviously, its going to maybe take some time but I’m willing to pout in the work.”

Projected lines
With only 11 players skating, there was no line rushes or defensive pairings, but coming off an 8-2 win, it’s hard to imagine Hakstol making any changes to the lineup. However, it looks as though Michal Nuevirth will get the start in net. 

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches
Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

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USA Today Images/AP Images/CSN

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

Flyers (3-2-0) vs. Panthers (2-2-0)
7 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30
 
Did the Flyers save any goals for the rest of the five-game homestand?
 
That's probably what many are asking after watching the 8-2 demolition they put on the Washington Capitals in Saturday night's home opener.
 
The Flyers will try to keep things rolling Tuesday night when they welcome the Florida Panthers to the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Here are some thoughts before Game 6 of the season:
 
• You couldn't ask for much more from the Flyers' top line against the Capitals. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek downright manhandled Washington. When Giroux moved to the left wing and Sean Couturier bumped up to first-line center, Saturday's performance was likely the dream scenario in the minds of the Flyers' coaching staff and front office.
 
It seemed like Voracek was making a play every time he touched the puck, Couturier did yeoman's work in all phases, and Giroux looked like his old self, showing a little bit of everything in his arsenal. The trio combined for 10 points on four goals and six assists. No one is expecting such production on a game-by-game basis, but let's see if this group can sustain these positive vibes and turn itself into a staple up top. As evidenced by Saturday, the Flyers go to a different level when those three are on.
 
• No one wants to see Travis Sanheim sitting. He's a first-round pick the fan base has been eager to see. He has great size and offensive upside for a defenseman. It will be exciting to watch him become a pillar of the Flyers' blue line.
 
But is it really the end of the world if Brandon Manning plays a couple games here in the early going? Manning will suit up Tuesday for his second straight game in place of Sanheim. The 21-year-old rookie won't be in the press box for long, though, because that doesn't jive with general manager Ron Hextall's development plan. So Sanheim will sit for a few, watch and learn. That's not too terrible.
 
And, the two games Manning has played so far (season opener and home opener), the Flyers won both by a combined score of 13-5. Was he the most critical reason why? No, but he didn't hurt the Flyers, either. Keeping your projected seventh defenseman somewhat active is a good idea for when/if he is needed.
 
Sanheim will be fine and he will play.
 
We're about to be only six games in here … let's just give this some time.
 
• Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said he planned on using both of his goalies over this homestand. Michal Neuvirth will get the call against the Panthers after Brian Elliott started four of the first five games. Neuvirth looks like the clear backup, but it's important to get him starts, and that's what Hakstol plans on doing.
 
Neuvirth didn't see Florida last season. However, he did see the Panthers in 2015-16 and was terrific, delivering a shutout, 1.59 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in two games. He hasn't seen game action since Oct. 5.
 
• Wayne Simmonds, who has been a stud so far with five goals in five games, did work against Florida last season, posting three goals and an assist in three games.
 
• The Panthers are good. They've scored 16 goals through their first four games, all tough tests against the Lightning twice, the Blues and the Penguins. Florida boasts some nice, young talent in center Jonathan Huberdeau (three goals, two assists), center Aleksander Barkov (three assists) and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (two goals, two assists), just to name some.
 
To add to it, Florida's first-round pick at 10th overall this past summer, Owen Tippett, will make his NHL debut tonight. The 18-year-old scored 44 goals in 60 junior games last season for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
 
• Here is the Flyers' projected lineup:
 
Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl
 
Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas
 
Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim.