That one time in Michigan: When the Red Wings played in prison

(Public domain image)

By Karel Vega

October 19, 2023

And made NHL history in the process.

The Detroit Red Wings’ season has officially kicked off. Let’s celebrate by going back to the first outdoor game in Red Wings history—and the first in the history of the National Hockey League.

The year was 1954, and the most notable thing about this game wasn’t its location—it was who the Red Wings were playing. No, not another NHL team. This was a group of prisoners.

The Red Wings hit the slammer

This tale starts in the summer of 1953, when Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams and team captain Ted Lindsay hit the Upper Peninsula on a promotional tour of Stroh’s beer.

One of the stops on the trip landed them at the Marquette Branch Prison. According to the Escanaba Daily Press, Adams and Lindsay were impressed by the inmates’ hockey knowledge. After a tour from prison warden Emery Jacques, Adams and Lindsay were given an outlandish proposition—an invitation to return with the rest of the team for a prison match.

The proposition amused Adams, and he didn’t think it likely to happen—the prison didn’t have an ice rink, after all. So, he agreed. (Supposedly, Adams may also have said yes as a favor to a couple of inmates he knew from the Purple Gang, who were serving time in the prison.)

But Adams seriously misjudged Jacques’ enthusiasm for athletics. During the warden’s tenure, sports became available year-round for his inmates, who had access to many pastimes—including baseball, handball, boxing, and eventually, hockey.

After Adams and Lindsay left, Jacques worked with prison athletic director Leonard “Oakie” Brumm to make the game a reality.

Brumm was a former college hockey player, and he had experience with construction—he had already built the prison an assortment of amenities, including a mini golf course, a shuffleboard court, and a curling rink. In the meantime, the Red Wings sent the prison several hundred dollars’ worth of equipment.

The prison also received donated equipment from the Marquette Sentinels—an amateur hockey team—and the Michigan Tech Huskies team. And so assembled the Marquette Prison Pirates, the first prison hockey team in the US.

The game was set for Feb. 2, 1954.

Red Wings vs. Pirates

That one time in Michigan: When the Red Wings played in prison

(Source: Detroit Red Wings)

Imagine it with me, ‘Ganders: It’s early February. The Red Wings are in Marquette, along the northern border of the U.P., skating on an outdoor ice rink. It’s 21 degrees and snowing. And swarming all around them are the home team—the Pirates—and they’ve got hockey sticks in their hands and blades on their feet.

“I was leading the league in penalty minutes at the time, so I fit right in with the boys,” Lindsay said, according to 100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. “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.”

By all accounts, Lindsay’s prediction turned out to be correct.

The entire prison population turned out to witness the exhibition game. The Pirates had a 4–1–1 record going in, but they were no match for a squad filled with future Hall of Famers.

At the end of the first period, the Red Wings were dominating 18–0. Even though at one point Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuck completely left his post to sign autographs, the Pirates were unable to score into the empty net.

By the second period, they had stopped keeping score altogether. The Pirates managed to recruit a few Red Wings players to their side, and by the third period, the game devolved into a friendly showcase of the players’ shooting and passing skills.

At the game’s conclusion, the Red Wings were awarded a trophy, plus handmade wallets for each player. They capped off their visit with a Wings-Pirates dinner.

Before heading back home, the Red Wings also faced off against the Marquette Sentinels, seizing an easy 16-6 victory.

Oddly enough, Associated Press coverage the following day downplayed the Red Wings’ win against the Pirates, reporting the final score as 5-2.

Victory tour

That one time in Michigan: When the Red Wings played in prison

Jack Adams holds up the trophy gifted to the Red Wings by the Marquette Pirates. (Source: Detroit Red Wings)

After their U.P. visit, The Red Wings would continue their successful season. Two months after defeating the Pirates, the team would take on the defending champion Montreal Canadiens in the 1954 Stanley Cup Finals (you can check out some footage of game 2 in the series here).

The Red Wings took the series 4-3—grabbing their second championship win in four years and sixth overall. History would repeat itself the following year as the Wings once again bested the Canadians to win the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

That win marked the end of the Red Wings’ championship streak for some time—their next Stanley Cup win wouldn’t come until 1997.


That’s this week’s story about That One Time in Michigan. Get these weekly historic glimpses of the Mitten State sent directly to your inbox on Mondays by signing up for our newsletter here. Know a story we should explore? Tell us here!

That one time in Michigan: When the Red Wings played in prison

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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