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Wings pioneered outdoor game in 1954

by Andrea Nelson / Detroit Red Wings
It was 60 years ago when the Red Wings became hockey pioneers, accepting a challenge from a prison warden to play outdoors in Marquette, Mich. (Photo from Detroit Red Wings Achieves)

In the world of hockey, Groundhog Day isn’t known purely for Punxsutawney Phil’s annual appearance, when all eyes attentively turn to the groundhog as he predicts the weather for the rest of the winter.

On Feb. 2, 1954, while the rodent scurried back into his hole, the Red Wings participated in the first outdoor hockey game featuring an NHL team. It’s an event that has taken the league by storm, growing into a number of highly anticipated celebrations of hockey every year, hosted in monstrous football and baseball stadiums from New York to Los Angeles.

But the tradition began on a chilly, overcast and windless day 60 years ago in the most unlikely of places.

The Wings were invited to Marquette, a city on the southern shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to play in the first professional outdoor game inside the razor wire-topped stone walls and armed watchtowers of the state’s most notorious maximum-security prison.

Clearly, the game against the Marquette Prison Pirates had a far different ambience then the last time the Wings played outdoors in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium.

“I was never concerns because I figured that I could take care of myself,” said Wings legend Ted Lindsay, of playing against murderers, arsonists, bank robbers and assorted other degenerates. “But I felt very strongly from having been close to them in the summertime and mingling with them that there was no reason to be worried.”

Months earlier, Lindsay and general manager Jack Adams visited Marquette Branch Prison during a promotional barnstorming trip through the U.P., which was sponsored by Stroh’s Brewery. The two men put on a short presentation in the prison’s auditorium, then answered some questions from the prisoners.

“It was a Stroh’s promotion. They paid us though it wasn’t much,” Lindsay recalled. “We did it mostly in the Lower Peninsula, probably three or four teams of twosomes went to different lunches, breakfasts and dinners to clubs and all.”

In the last two weeks of June, Lindsay and Adams went to the U.P., starting in St. Ignace and on to the Soo and Marquette where they ended up at the prison. Lindsay remembers it not being as bad inside as it had been made out to be. But he still inquired with the guards about personal safety. “Oh no, if anybody thought of doing anything they would be dead before he took two steps,” Lindsay was told.

PHOTOS: Red Wings vs. Marquette Prison Pirates

But playing against maximum-security prisoners, who were locked up for 23 hours a day, would be an altogether different risk for the Red Wings. And that’s where Lindsay believes the Wings’ GM was somehow bamboozled by the warden.

“Our summer visit went well and then the warden caught Jack Adams by surprise when he said, ‘Jack, would you bring your team up here and play in the prison yard?” Lindsay said. “Jack almost swallowed his tongue not knowing what the heck to say. But after doing some visiting and talking back and forth – probably giving Jack some time to think – he told the warden, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll bring my team up if you can pay for the plane, pay for the hotel rooms, pay for the meals and I’ll bring my team up.’ ”

Emery Jacques, the prison’s last politically appointed warden, called Adams’ bluff and a few months later extended a formal invitation to the NHL’s best pros to play the cons at the “Alcatraz of the North.”

Marquette's inmate population comprised the worst of the worst, including members of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang, who were serving life sentences in the prison. Meeting a gunman involved in one of the gang’s massacres is a memory Red Kelly hasn’t forgotten.

“There were a few guys with machine guns, two gangs you know met at Olympia there around there and one gang shot the other gang and the shooter was up in the prison at that time,” Kelly recalled. “He was handing out clothes (in the prison). He was a little guy, he looked like he could’ve been a minister. You know he had glasses and he was supposed to be the guy that had the machine gun, and mowed them all down.”

Although the Wings were lining up against convicts, Lindsay wasn’t the least bit concerned about the possibility of a prison yard fracas, saying, “I was viewed as a hero because I was leading the league in penalties, so I fit right in with the boys.”

The playing conditions in Marquette that day were perfect, prompting Gordie Howe to say that the ice was “the best he had ever played on.”

Lindsay agreed, saying, “Anytime you get nature doing the freezing you’ve got the best ice possible.”

But someone had to build the rink of dreams, and that was Oakie Brumm. The prison’s director of physical activity and a former University of Michigan hockey player, Brumm was tasked with creating a rink in the prison yard without the convicts using the materials as tools for escaping.

Brumm would later write about his experiences in the prison in a book entitled “We Only Played Home Games” where he recounted his memories, including the only time an NHL club played inside a penitentiary.

“The inmates and I saw all of this as a future hockey rink,” wrote Brumm, who died in 2006. “Most of the custodial staff considered this serious escape equipment, at least until it was nailed down.”

The game on prison ice was the greatest thrill most of the inmates and staff had ever experienced. Wings coach Tommy Ivan put his team through a series of big league drills and skills competitions, and then the Wings defeated the Pirates soundly by displaying some of the dazzling stick work that made them league champions for seven consecutive seasons.

“It was interesting because you knew they were inmates and you were playing you know,” Kelly said. “And they were betting on the game a little bit or something I don’t know how they were doing this but they were doing it and so you didn’t want to end up on the wrong end of the score there.”

To make things interesting, the Wings swapped a few players, trading goalie Terry Sawchuk, among others, and exchanged one set of defensemen, said Lindsay, who skated on the opposite wing as Howe with an inmate as their centerman.

Howe then skated the second half of the game with the prisoners, wearing a No. 16 Pirates' jersey.

After 10 minutes, the Wings had a 10-0 advantage, and by the end of the first period they had an 18-0 lead. It could easily have been 50-0.

“The only time I touched the puck,” bemoaned Brumm, who installed himself on defense, “was when I pulled it out of the back of the net.”

The Red Wings ran away with the game and the warden presented Adams with a honey bucket as a makeshift trophy. Lindsay doesn’t remember the final score, which he calls insignificant.

“It was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would say that they were all perfect gentlemen,” Lindsay said. “The emotions that you have at the time are what you should be able to feel. The emotions of what you felt with them and the emotions that you felt for them and how you felt being on the ice with them. All of that stuff you forget.”

Bill Roose contributed to this story

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