Hollywood could easily transform this storyline into a “made for TV movie.”
Fifty five years ago the Detroit Red Wings lead by Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Terry Sawchuk played the “worst” team they would ever face, a squad of convicted killers and armed robbers inside Marquette State prison.
The idea of a Pros versus Cons game originated the previous summer when Wings’ General Manager Jack Adams and team captain Ted Lindsay visited the prison yard during a Stroh Brewery sponsored trip to Marquette.
Former Purple Gang ringleaders (and Wing fans) Harry Keywell and Ray Bernstein, serving life sentences for murder in the “Collingwood Massacre”, approached Adams and said, “Hey Jack, how about bringing the Red Wings up for a scrimmage?”
It was an offer he could have refused.
Author and historian Richard Bak in his book, Detroit Red Wings: The Illustrated History of the Detroit Red Wings, offers this explanation: ”Years before the Purple Gang members had once made the acquaintance of Adams who had enough sense to just smile, shake hands, and politely turn down all invitations to join the boys for a night out on the town.”
Knowing the prison didn’t have a team or a rink, Adams offhandedly accepted the latest Purple Gang invitation just before prison warden Emery Jacques quickly added, “anytime at all Jack.” Jacques privately admitted to committing the cardinal prison sin of “letting his mouth write a check that his ass couldn’t check.”
But within weeks, Jacques hired 27 year old Leonard “Oakie” Brumm, (a member of the 1948 University of Michigan NCCA Championship hockey team) as the “Alcatraz of the North’s” first athletic director.
Besides quickly establishing numerous recreational activities as an outlet to help quell prison disturbances, Brumm constructed a regulation size rink with boards and trained selected inmates to play hockey with equipment donated by Adams that once belonged to the Omaha Knights, a defunct Wing’s farm team. The local semi-pro Marquette Sentinels agreed to finance the Wing’s trip in exchange for an exhibition game.
Jack Adams kept his promise.
On February 2, 1954, the crusty GM and Coach Tommy Ivan lead the Wings through a security check before heading out to the prison yard amongst the cheers from 600 inmates. The Red Wing players had not played outside hockey since they were kids playing in their small Canadian towns.
“It was 21 degrees, overcast, no wind, and perfect for outdoor hockey,” recalled “Oakie” Brumm.
“I had 15 guys working on the ice all night with tooth brushes to make it perfect,” said Brumm, a retired construction project manager.
To the delight of the toughest crowd ever watch a hockey game, (the entire prison population except for those in solitary) the Wings poured it on.
Mr. Hockey remembers it well.
“I deked around their goaltender, put it in the far side and their defenseman was laughing. The goalie says to him, “I’ll kill you, you bastard.” The other guy was so damn good natured and I told him it bothers me that you’re in here. He says, ‘the worse thing I did was run. I was just cleaning my finger nails with my knife when this guy runs around the corner and ran into it five times,” Gordie Howe said chuckling.
Oakie Brumm played defense, and was immediately impressed by the Wings.
“They let us take the puck down the ice, spread us out, then they took it away, bing, bing, bing, three passes and a goal,” said Brumm. They were scoring a goal a minute and could have done it quicker if I had pulled the puck out of the net faster. When it was 18-0 Wings at the end of the first period, the scorekeeper quit keeping score.”
By the second period, the teams split up and some Wings put on the green prisoner’s jerseys. For the third period, the Wings played an intra squad game, much to the delight of the howling inmates who regularly listened to Red Wing broadcasts.
“Terrible Ted” Lindsay, a prison favorite because of his penalty box minutes, fondly recalls the game.
“It was a wonderful experience for all of us on the team, and I know it was for them,” he said. “But I didn’t want to get any of those guys mad at me,” Lindsay said laughing. “It was great fun.”
Marty Pavelich remembers a particularly awkward moment.
“I was skating down the ice and I hear this prisoner in the crowd calling my name. I thought to myself, who would I know here? It turned out it was my mailman from Sault St. Marie where I grew up! I guess he got into a little trouble back home. The inmates were just regular folks, cheering and hollering for all it was worth,” Pavelich said.
Following the game, each Red Wing received a hand tooled wallet with their name and team logo etched in leather, gifts made by the prisoners. That evening the Wings defeated the Marquette Sentinels in the city arena before returning to Detroit on a chartered North Central DC-3.
Just ten weeks later, the Red Wings were crowned Stanley Cup Champions after defeating Montreal.
And nobody cheered louder than the inmates in Marquette.