Doc Emrick takes a look back on the first outdoor game ever played by an NHL team, which was on Feb. 2, 1954 when the Detroit Red Wings played the inmates of Marquette Branch Prison in the recreation yard.
On February 2, 1954, the Red Wings were invited by Emery Jacques, the Marquette prison’s last politically appointed warden, to play an outdoor game – the first in franchise history – inside the razor wire-topped stone walls and armed watchtowers of the state’s most notorious maximum-security prison, the Alcatraz of the North.
Marquette’s inmate population comprised the worst of the worst, and their hockey skills weren’t much better, so some tried to build up the game by emphasizing the convicts’ crimes and the possibility of a real brawl when the Marquette Prison Pirates linedup against the Wings.
Wings legend Ted Lindsay wasn’t the least bit concerned about 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.
“They were more curious because they had heard us on the radio and seen us on the television,” said Lindsay, of the inmates. “Now they were looking at the real person.”
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 prison’s wear a No. 16 Pirates’ jersey.
Believe it or not, but the Red Wings ran away with the game and the warden presented Wings General Manager Jack Adams with a honey bucket as a makeshift trophy. Lindsay doesn’t remember the final score, which he calls insignificant.
History was made on that day, history that no other NHL team has ever duplicated. The first Winter Classic of 1954.
For the full article, see Bill Roose, Wings’ first outdoor game was in prison; First ‘Winter Classic’ was 58 years ago in Michigan prison”, RedWings.com, February 9, 2012.
Recalling Red Wings vs. Prisoners.
For another, see Richard Bak, “Red Wings’ 1954 Prison Game Featured Pros and Cons“, Detroit Athletic Company, January 25, 2015.
Christopher Klein, “You Won’t Believe Where the First NHL Outdoor Game Was Played“, History.com, December 28, 2016.
Also see We only played home games : wacky, raunchy, humorous stories of sports and other events in Michigan’s maximum security prison / by Leonard “Oakie” Brumm. Oak Creek, Wis. : Brumm Enterprises, c2001. 228pp. MSU Library HV8860 .B78 2001b