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Suit vs. Suit
Jamal Greene
June 17, 2002
The fiercest rivals in the Stanley Cup finals are sitting in the owners' boxes
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June 17, 2002

Suit Vs. Suit

The fiercest rivals in the Stanley Cup finals are sitting in the owners' boxes

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Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch are both sons of immigrants, natives of Detroit and civic-minded businessmen. As of next year they'll also be neighbors: Karmanos's Compuware offices are moving just blocks from Ilitch's Little Caesars Detroit headquarters. But don't expect to see the two schmoozing at the Stanley Cup finals. Said Karmanos before Game 1, "I will have as many conversations with Mr. Ilitch as I had with the owner of Toronto, the owner of Montreal and the owner of New Jersey: zero."

That chill isn't coming from the ice. Ilitch, 72, and Karmanos, 59, are, as the latter has said, "unfriendly rivals." Their discontent stems from youth hockey, which in Detroit is serious business. In 1974, the year after Karmanos founded Compuware, the company began sponsoring youth teams. At the time, teams backed by Little Caesars dominated the leagues, but Compuware aggressively recruited coaches and players, and a hot rivalry developed. Stars center Mike Modano, who played for Little Caesars teams in the '80s, has said, "You're either a Little Caesars guy or a Compuware guy."

After Karmanos bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994—Ilitch has owned the Wings since '82—the rivalry grew. After the Wings were swept in the '95 Cup finals by the Devils, Ilitch booted Compuware's Ontario Hockey League champion Junior Red Wings out of Joe Louis Arena, where the team had played for five years. Ilitch, who manages the facility, said he wanted to use it for concerts and college hockey, but Karmanos blamed the eviction on misplaced bitterness. "The Red Wings are just so embarrassed [that] New Jersey kicked their butts," he said. "They are angry at everybody and everything."

Karmanos got payback in February 1998 when Carolina tendered Wings center Sergei Fedorov an offer sheet that would have paid him $38 million over six years, including a $14 million signing bonus and another $12 million bonus if the team reached the conference finals. Since the Hurricanes sat last in the Northeast Division, they were at little risk of having to pony up the $12 million. To keep Fedorov, however, Ilitch, whose Wings had the NHL's second-best record, had to match the offer. Ultimately Detroit won the Cup and paid Fedorov $28 million in a four-month span. Ilitch was livid at the Fedorov power play, and while he won't discuss his relationship with Karmanos, the Cup final is clearly stirring up bile in the boardroom. "If there's acrimony [between us]," says Karmanos, "we share it equally."