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The Buck Stops Here: Ilitch in Detroit showed way for Pegulas in Buffalo

Six years ago this month, after Terry Pegula was introduced to Buffalo upon purchasing the Buffalo Sabres, he held up Mike Ilitch as a model owner in professional sports. Say what you will about Pegula, but the man had good taste. Ilitch built the Little Caesar’s empire, became a billionaire, purchased two sports franchises and led the way in revitalizing downtown Detroit.

Ilitch was revered in his beloved hometown before he died last week at age 87, an icon in the Motor City. He supported his city through brutal economic times and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into projects much the way Terry and Kim Pegula did to help reshape Buffalo’s waterfront.

Certain parallels are undeniable. At one point, Detroit was the NHL’s poorest market while Buffalo was second. Ilitch was a godsend for Detroit. The same praise was showered upon Pegula in Buffalo. Both were self-made men with the wealth needed for two teams, as if owning one wasn’t difficult enough.

If there’s a point in which striking similarities veered in different directions, it has been with the success of their sports teams.

Ilitch purchased the Red Wings in 1982 and helped turn them into a top NHL franchise. They missed the playoffs three times in his first eight years before rattling off 25 consecutive trips to the postseason. They won four Stanley Cups under his watch and often served as Detroit’s primary escape from real-world problems.

The key: hiring quality people and allowing them to perform their duties. Ilitch was a former minor-league baseball player, not a hockey guy. But he knew enough about sports to attract intelligent minds and build a strong foundation. He helped create the Hockeytown culture that existed from the youth levels to the highest levels of the sport.

Ilitch purchased the Tigers in 1992 and watched them struggle before restoring respectability. The Tigers missed the postseason in their first 14 seasons under Ilitch’s ownership before losing the World Series in 2006. They made the postseason four straight years, getting swept by the Giants in the 2012 Series.

He also built Little Caesar’s Arena, set to open in September, and Comerica Park, the nearby jewel that has been home to the Tigers since 2000.

The Sabres under the Pegulas fell to the bottom. The Bills are headed in a similar direction while trying to spare themselves the indignity the Sabres suffered in recent years. In seven full seasons combining hockey and football, Pegula-owned teams missed the playoffs every year.

Ilitch will be remembered as one of the best, but people forget that his success didn’t happen overnight. He owned the Red Wings for 14 years before they won their first Cup. He never did win a World Series with the Tigers.

Pegula talked about bringing a Cup to Buffalo within three years and plans to win Cups, plural. Regardless, in the grand scheme, he’s just getting started. Ilitch wasn’t considered a savvy owner in the 1980s. Thirty-five years later, his success is etched in stone. The Pegulas still haven’t scratched the surface.

Boo birds singing in OKC

Over the weekend, Oklahoma City hoop fans unleashed their pent-up anger on Kevin Durant in his first game back as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Durant gave Thunder fans some of their best memories after he became their franchise player.

If anything, they should take their frustration out on management that failed to keep top players. The Thunder could have a championship by now, and Durant likely would have stayed, if the organization paid James Harden in 2012 before trading him to the Rockets in a six-player deal that also included three draft picks.

Harden started only seven games in his first three seasons, but he was the best sixth man in the NBA. He has since become an MVP candidate in Houston. Oklahoma City made a mess of its draft picks.

The Thunder took Steven Adams with the 12th pick overall in 2013, three slots before the Bucks took selected Giannis Antetokounmpo. OKC took Mitch McGarry and Josh Huestis in the first round in 2014. They played 58 NBA games combined.

Durant was getting paid either way. He left Oklahoma City in search of something the Thunder failed to build during his time, a team capable of winning a championship. Blame the organization, not him.

Boo birds singing in BUF

Jack Eichel wasn’t complaining about fans booing the Sabres early in the third period against San Jose. Eichel knew they were displeased with their effort and had every right to share their displeasure. He was stating a fact after they trailed by three goals and won in overtime.

Here’s another fact: In the previous 130 minutes and 57 seconds leading into Buffalo’s game Sunday against Vancouver, Eichel had a goal and five assists. He had been held without a point in four of the previous five games.

“I never said that there was something wrong with them booing us,” Eichel said. “We didn’t play well. We weren’t playing well. I think people like to take things and run with them.”

Presumably, the “people” he mentioned were fans. No matter how the boos were intended, his reaction to them or the subsequent backlash, they had the desired effect on the Sabres.

Message sent, message received.

Circling the bases

Baseball has attempted to speed up the game with marginal results, but let’s face the facts: The game isn’t going to get much faster unless they A) limit the commercials between innings or B) make drastic changes that would alter the sport.

You might as well forget the first one. Major League Baseball isn’t going to turn away potential revenue because games last three-plus hours.

MLB was flirting with the idea of putting a man on second base in extra innings. It plans to experiment this year in low-level minor leagues. The idea is to accelerate the game and decrease marathons that take tolls on pitching staffs.

“It's not fun when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch,” chief baseball officer Joe Torre said told Yahoo! Sports last week.

I like games that go deep into extra innings and the rare opportunities to see position players on the mound. It creates drama and forces strategy in late innings. Baseball’s problem is that many fans don’t have the patience to sit through the first nine innings with all the pitching changes you see nowadays.

But there are other ways to shorten games. One is playing seven innings, as they do in high school. If they really wanted to cater to younger fans, they could adopt rules implemented in many showcase camps.

In showcase camps, each at-bat begins with a 1-1 count: Three balls for a walk; two strikes, and you’re out. It forces pitchers to throw more strikes, which leads to more balls being put in play and faster innings. The games fly.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting it should be done. I am saying it could be done, preferably after I’m dead. I’m fine with baseball’s pace.

Quotable

Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” when asked how the Atlanta Falcons must have felt when New England rallied from 25 points in the Super Bowl: “You go through the whole year, and for one team it’s what we have. For the other 31, it’s a crash landing, and the season is over.”

Retweet

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in response to why President Trump insulted him Sunday on Twitter: “I don’t know. But isn’t it better for all of us that he is tweeting rather than trying to govern?”

Stats Inc.

15 – Touchdown passes thrown in Super Bowls by Tom Brady.

15 – Touchdown passes thrown in Super Bowls by 45 quarterbacks who were taken in the first round since the Patriots selected Tom Brady in 2000.

1,582 – Days between victories for Anderson Silva, whose decision over Derek Brunson at UFC 208 in Brooklyn was his first since Oct. 13, 2012.

Extra Points

Miami had an 11-30 record before winning 13 straight games. How does an NBA team have such a turnaround? One reason is that seven of their opponents (Dallas, Milwaukee, Nets twice, Bulls, Pistons, 76ers, Timberwolves) during the streak were a combined 123 games under .500 going into Sunday’s games.

Jaromir Jagr’s goal in a 7-4 win over Nasvhille gave him 10 goals this season with the Florida Panthers. He joined Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Ron Francis to score 10 goals or more in 23 seasons. On Tuesday, Jagr will celebrate his 45th birthday.

New York Knicks owner James Dolan threw out the wrong guy when he had Charles Oakley ejected from Madison Square Garden. He should have tossed President Phil Jackson, who is stealing $12 million a year. Jackson was hired to attract better players and turn around the franchise, not turn Carmelo Anthony into a sympathetic figure. Grade: F.

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