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When the Red Wings Played an Outdoor Prison Game Against Inmates

The Red Wings, including Gordie Howe, played their first outdoor game on Feb. 2, 1954. But there was a twist: it was against inmates at Marquette State Prison in Michigan.

by Mike Commito
Feb 2 2017, 7:58pm

Photo courtesy Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings went to jail. No, seriously. Back on Feb. 2, 1954, Detroit played its first outdoor game in franchise history against a gang of inmates in a penitentiary. It's almost too incredible to believe but it actually happened.

The origins of the game dated back to June 1953, when Red Wings general manager Jack Adams and captain Ted Lindsay were doing a promotional tour across Michigan, and one of their stopovers just so happened to be Marquette State Prison, better known as the Alcatraz of the North. As the two Red Wings strolled the grounds with warden Emery Jacques, the latter suggested to Adams that he should bring the whole team back for a game. The Wings GM initially shrugged it off, but after hemming and hawing, Adams eventually accepted the offer on the condition that Marquette finance the club's entire trip and stay in the Upper Peninsula. The warden called his bluff, and agreed. The Red Wings were going to the big house.

The Red Wings take the ice. Photo courtesy Detroit Red Wings

At that point in the regular season, Detroit had just played its 59th game and was sitting atop the league standings. The Red Wings were coming off a dominant 5-1 victory in Chicago, and rather than getting a full three days' rest before hosting the Bruins at the Olympia, they were on their way to the southern shore of Lake Superior to face off against Marquette's hockey team that was fittingly known as the Pirates.

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On the morning of the game, the mercury was below zero, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm among the prison's spectators. Despite the frigid temperatures, nearly all of the inmates, save for those being held in solitary confinement, braved the cold weather just to get a glimpse of the mighty Red Wings playing in the yard. Lindsay recalled how curious they were to see the team play. "They heard us on the radio and seen us on television [but] now they were looking at the real person," he said.

The prison's director of physical activity Leonard "Oakie" Brumm and the inmates did an incredible job constructing the rink, which was full regulation size and included boards. Gordie Howe was said to have remarked it was the best ice he had every played on. But Brumm was no stranger to the game, he played hockey for the Wolverines at the University of Michigan, and would eventually go on to coach the city of Marquette's semi-pro team, the Iron Rangers.

When the puck dropped, unsurprisingly, it was all Detroit. After the first ten minutes of play, it was reported that the Red Wings were up by double digits, and that by the end of the first period, the Pirates faced an 18-goal deficit. By that point, they stopped keeping score and simply enjoyed the surreality of the moment. Brumm, who suited up alongside his inmates, recalled that the only time he touched the puck was when he was retrieving it out of the back of his net. Since the NHL club wasn't there to beat up on the inmates, they kept the rest of the scrimmage rather light.

A few key trades highlighted the rest of the afternoon. Terry Sawchuk manned the Pirates' crease for the rest of the game, while his teammates Alex Delvecchio and Sid Abel also stepped up for Marquette. But the greatest benefactor of the deals that day was undoubtedly the prisoner who got to don a Red Wings jersey and centre a line flanked by Howe and Lindsay. At the end of the match, Detroit was presented with the Doniker Trophy, known as the Honey Bucket.

Terry Sawchuk's name at the top of the Doniker Trophy. Photo courtesy of the Ilitch Holdings Corporate Archives/Detroit Red Wings Collection

By this point in the club's history, it already had a pretty stocked trophy case, but it certainly didn't have any hardware this unique. You might even say that, behind the Stanley Cup, the Honey Bucket is No. 2 among hockey trophies.

Detroit's new award was just one of the many laughs that afternoon. According to one story, Red Wings forward Marty Pavelich said, "I was skating down the ice and I hear this prisoner in the crowd calling my name. I thought to myself, 'Who would I know here?' It turned out it was my mailman from Sault Ste. Marie where I grew up! I guess he got into a little trouble back home."

Mr. Hockey also had a chuckle, remembering an exchange between Marquette's netminder and one of its defenceman. "I deked around their goaltender, put in the far side and their defenceman was laughing. The goalie says to him, 'I'll kill you, you bastard,'" said Howe. Given the venue, it was probably one of the few times where that type of an on-ice threat might have carried some weight.

The following day, perhaps echoing the tremendous show of sportsmanship displayed by the Red Wings, newspapers downplayed the outcome of the game. The Globe and Mail reported that the Pirates had only lost 5-2. The idea that Marquette's motley crew of hockey players would keep it tight and get two past a Detroit squad that boasted eight future Hall of Famers was absurd, but a nice touch.

Photo courtesy Detroit Red Wings

Two nights after the Marquette trip, the Red Wings blanked the Bruins 5-0 at home before 10,502 fans. And just 10 weeks after that, the team won its seventh Stanley Cup in franchise history. While the Marquette outdoor game was just an obscure footnote in Detroit's championship season, it attests to the heart and compassion that were hallmark characteristics among many of the players who made up that memorable squad. When Lindsay later reflected on the game, he remembered it with fondness. "It was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, I would say that they were all perfect gentleman," he said.

We will never see another matchup like this, that is until the NHL runs out of venues for its outdoor games. They've become all too ubiquitous, and if the league insists on scattering them throughout the regular season, it is going to have to explore bold new territory.

And what would be more daring than shifting one of the Stadium Series games to the slammer? Having the Sharks take on the Kings in the yard on Alcatraz Island, or having a club play against a team of prisoners at Folsom State Prison are a couple ways the league could go. If it worked for Johnny Cash, it can work for the National Hockey League.