clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The first outdoor NHL game pitted the Red Wings against a team of prisoners

A lesson in why you shouldn’t make promises to mobsters you don’t think you’ll have to keep.

Before we engineered a way to have large surfaces of frozen water available inside, people were stuck playing ice hockey outdoors like poor fools. Thankfully, the smart people fixed that and we’re no longer at the mercy of mother nature, allowing the sport to evolve from a winter game trapped in the north, to a spectacle that can be played well into the summer, from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay - just like the architects of the game intended.

Hockey as we know it today, is an indoor sport. But in 2001, a trend began, all thanks to the “Cold War,” an extremely creative name given to a hockey game played between Michigan and Michigan State for which they set up a rink in the middle of Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State’s football team usually played. On October 6th, 74,500 people filled the stadium that only sat 72,000 to set a world record for largest crowd at an ice hockey game. Realizing larger stadiums meant larger profits, the NHL jumped on the idea. Two years later, the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens took part in the league’s first outdoor contest, and in 2008 it became a yearly event, with an exception in 2013 thanks to the lockout.

Getty Images

But that Oilers-Canadiens game gets an asterisk. While notable for being the first time two NHL teams played each other in an outdoor game, decades before that, the Detroit Red Wings took part in an exhibition game in front of a small, but captive audience.

In the summer of 1953, Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams and his Captain, star forward Ted Lindsay, visited the “Alcatraz of the North,” Marquette State Prison. During a tour of the facilities, they met with inmates, including a couple of familiar faces for Adams, Harry Keywell and Ray Bernstein.

Before they got locked up, this duo had been well known Wings fans who rubbed elbows with Adams on a handful of occasions. They were also key figures in the Purple Gang, one of Detroit’s most notorious criminal organizations, so Adams had done his best to decline their social invitations while they were on the outside. But when the mobsters suggested he bring the rest of the team to the prison for a scrimmage, Adams saw no reason to be rude to a couple of guys serving life sentences.

Much like the plans you make with someone you have zero intention of ever seeing again, Adams said sure. He told the prison’s warden that if he could arrange it, the Red Wings would be there. Adams and Lindsay went back to Detroit confident they’d never have to return, but the prison went to work to make the game happen. One integral part of this process was Leonard Brumm.

Brumm was a former University of Michigan hockey player who came in as the prison’s first Athletic Director. He built shuffleboard courts and an 18-hole miniature golf course, but once he learned about the Red Wings’ visit, his focus turned to building an ice rink. Once completed, gear was sent from Detroit and the Marquette Prison Pirates were born.

They were the first organized hockey team at any penal institution in the nation, and during the winter of ‘53 - ‘54 they reached a 4-1-1 record against outside opponents. It helped considering they always had home ice advantage. The warden phoned Adams to let him know the prison had fulfilled their end of the deal. Detroit would have their costs covered by the local semi-pro Marquette Sentinels who agreed to finance the Red Wings trip if the Wings would then also scrimmage them. Adams, having given his word not only to the warden but to the Purple Gang as well, felt he had no alternative but to follow through with the appearance. Coming off their 59th game of the season, a victory in Chicago, the first place Red Wings went to prison.

Getty Images

Against men serving lengthy sentences who were looking for a distraction from their usual day to day, Detroit held nothing back. The Wings played with such dominance that by the end of the first period, it was 18 - 0. The goaltender for the Pirates said the only time he touched the puck was when he had to pull it out of the back of the net. After 20 minutes, the scorekeeper quit keeping track, and it became an intra squad scrimmage.

Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk changed teams along with Alex Delvecchio and Sid Abel. An inmate changed into a Detroit jersey, and skated on the same line as Lindsay and another future Hall of Famer, Gordie Howe. From there, both teams enjoyed a nice afternoon, with zero hostility from the hosts. Howe told one of his opponents that he felt bad such friendly guys were locked up, to which the inmate agreed, saying, “the worst thing I did was run. I was just cleaning my fingernails with my knife when this guy runs around the corner and ran into it five times.”

Lindsay received the most cheers, as inmates were drawn to the man who led the NHL in penalty minutes over the previous six seasons. Once sixty minutes were up, everyone on the ice came together, and the warden presented Detroit with the Doniker Trophy. It was really just a honey bucket, like, what prisoners went to the bathroom in.

Newspapers politely avoided reporting the bloodbath, noting a more competitive 5-2 final score. The Red Wings left the prison, beat the Marquette Sentinels that same night 16-6, then won the Stanley Cup 10 weeks later.

As for the prisoners, you can take their freedom but you can never take away that moment they forgot, that they were in prison.