On January 1, the Detroit Red Wings will take to the ice in the great outdoors to play the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the National Hockey League’s traditional New Year’s Day event. The game inside Toronto’s BMO Field, however, will be a far cry from the setting for the first outdoor game to feature the Red Wings—behind barbed wire in the yard of a maximum-security prison.
Fresh off a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings donned their road jerseys sporting their distinctive wheeled wing logo and laced up their skates to take to the ice against their next opponent. This was no ordinary game, however, and no ordinary opponent. After being patted down by armed guards, the greatest hockey team on the planet glided onto a rink inside the maximum-security Marquette Branch Prison on February 2, 1954, to play a squad of murderers, kidnappers and thieves in the first outdoor game in National Hockey League (NHL) history.
The groundwork for the most unusual game in NHL history had been laid the previous summer when Red Wings captain Ted Lindsay and general manager Jack Adams visited the penitentiary on the southern shores of Lake Superior during a promotional tour of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sponsored by Stroh’s Brewery. Before his guests departed, warden Emery Jacques invited Adams to return with his team in the winter to face off against the prisoners. Given that the inmates had no equipment and the prison no rink, Adams good-naturedly agreed as long as his team’s hotel, charter plane and meals were paid for. “Jack figured he’d never hear from him again,” Lindsay told Canadian sports network TSN.
Months later, the warden informed a shocked Adams that he had upheld his end of the bargain by getting the owners of the semi-professional Marquette Sentinels to pay for the $2,500 trip as long as the Red Wings also played them in an exhibition game when coming to town. The Red Wings general manager remained true to his word as well and even sent the inmates hockey equipment used by the Omaha Knights, Detroit’s recently disbanded farm team. As a joke, Adams had “Emery’s Boys” sewn onto the fronts of the uniforms in honor of the prison’s warden.
The task of building the rink fell to the prison’s newly hired recreation director, Leonard “Oakie” Brumm, who saw sports as a way for inmates to blow off steam and keep the peace. A member of the 1948 University of Michigan hockey team that captured the first-ever NCAA title, Brumm was as handy with a hammer as he was with a hockey stick. He had constructed an 18-hole miniature golf course, shuffleboard and bocce courts and a curling rink for the convicts. Brumm formed a prison football team that played outside squads, although by necessity every game was a home game. When it came to hockey, prison officials were naturally leery of stick-wielding prisoners, so oftentimes the convicts were limited to playing “kick hockey” in which they could only progress the puck with their feet.
No strangers to fights and penalties themselves, the Red Wings were tough characters in their own right and had no qualms about playing Michigan’s most-hardened criminals inside the “Alcatraz of the North.” “I was never concerned, because I figured that I could take care of myself,” Lindsay told NHL.com in 2012. “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.”
After dressing in their makeshift locker room—a carpenter’s shack—the Red Wings skated onto the rink in the middle of the prison yard in the shadows of looming guard towers and stone walls fringed with coils of barbed wire. The entire prison population of 600 convicts—minus those still in solitary confinement—stood around the boards and cheered their hockey gods who included future Hall of Famers Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, Alex Delvecchio and “Mr. Hockey” himself, Gordie Howe. The biggest ovation was reserved for Lindsay when it was mentioned that “Terrible Ted” led the team in penalties.
The setting may have been unusual, but the conditions on the 21-degree overcast afternoon were perfect. Brumm had spent the night directing crews armed with toothbrushes as they polished the ice into a glassy surface, which Howe would say was the best that he had ever skated on. With knit caps pulled snuggly over their heads, the Red Wings shot puck after puck past the goalie for the Marquette Prison Pirates, a chronic thief named Bugsy Williams who had been released from solitary confinement for the occasion. Howe literally skated circles around the opposition, once looping three times unmolested around the Pirates’ goal before depositing the puck in the back of the net.
So bored was Detroit’s goalie, Sawchuk, with the lack of action on his side of the ice that he sat on top of his net and eventually skated down the rink and tripped one of the Pirates. A referee clad in a spotless white dress shirt, crisp black pants and tie blew his whistle and dispatched Sawchuk to the penalty box. Even with Sawchuk busy in the penalty box signing autographs and no goalie in the Red Wings net, the prisoners couldn’t score.
By the end of the first period, the Red Wings were up 18-0. “The only time I touched the puck was when I pulled it out of the back of the net,” Brumm recalled years later to Richard Bak, author of “Detroit Red Wings: The Illustrated History.” The scoreboard was abandoned for the remainder of the game, and Sawchuk switched sides for the second period. Lindsay and Howe eventually pulled on the Pirates’ green jerseys as well, giving one lucky convict the thrill of skating on the same line as hockey royalty.
In lieu of a third period, the Red Wings staged an intra-squad game and put on an exhibition of shooting and passing, not that they hadn’t already done so against the Pirates. After the end of the game, the players gathered at the center of the rink where Brumm awarded Detroit a piece of hardware slightly less prestigious than the revered Stanley Cup—the “Honey Bucket Trophy,” which was a replica of the galvanized tin pails that prisoners used as makeshift toilets.
“This is a great day,” Adams told the prisoners. “The only trouble is, you guys sure have made it tough for me to recruit any of you.” The Detroit general manager hoisted the trophy engraved with the names of the Red Wings and Pirates above his head as if it was the Stanley Cup, which his squad would win 10 weeks later by defeating the Montreal Canadiens in seven games. The prisoners also presented their guests with hand-tooled leather wallets embossed with their names and the Red Wings emblem. In one final bit of sportsmanship, newspapers reported the score as a tight 5-2 victory by the Red Wings over the “prison pucksters.”