It was, insisted Leonard “Oakie” Brumm, the damnedest hockey game ever played. Here it was, in the dead of winter and smack-dab in the middle of the 1953-54 National Hockey League season, and the best hockey team in the world had chartered a plane to fly hundreds of miles to the rugged northern reaches of Michigan in order to slap around a rubber disc with a group of spaghetti-legged kidnappers, murderers, burglars, and arsonists.
Gordie Howe. Ted Lindsay. Red Kelly. Terry Sawchuk. What were these future Hall of Famers doing squaring off on an outdoor rink against the likes of Bugsy Wisocki and an assortment of other four- and five-time losers? According to Brumm, it was the result of a promise Red Wings general manager Jack Adams had made to the officials of Marquette Prison. “Build it,” Jolly Jack had said in a spurt of offhanded largesse, or words to that effect, “and we will come.”
“It” was a walled, regulation-sized hockey rink, something no prison in the country ever had. But thanks to the efforts of Brumm—the prison’s first athletic director and a top-drawer contractor to boot—the rink was built. And, remarkably, the Wings did come—to a tough and dreary maximum-security prison justifiably known as “Alcatraz of the North.”
The game was played on the afternoon of February 2, 1954. But the story really begins many years earlier, back in 1927, when Adams arrived in the Motor City as the new coach of the Detroit Cougars. Prohibition made the 1920s an uproarious decade, and nowhere was the noise louder than in Detroit, whose proximity to Canada made it the perfect conduit for illegal booze.
The city’s most notorious bootleggers were a loosely organized band of young punks who grew up together on the near east side. Dubbed the Purple Gang by the press, they were known as flashy dressers, big spenders, and avid sportsmen who enjoyed ubbing shoulders with Detroit’s sporting elite. The Purples could be seen taking in baseball games at Navin Field, boxing matches at neighborhood gyms, and hockey games at the brand-new Olympia Stadium on Grand River Avenue. Somewhere along the line the ringleaders—Ray Bernstein, Irving Milberg, and Harry Keywell—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.
That, of course, was a wise decision. In 1931, several Purples were sent to Jackson State Prison for their part in the Collingwood Massacre, a triple homicide inside an apartment building on Collingwood. The gangsters’ influence extended beyond prison walls, however, as seen by the baseball-loving Bernstein’s ability to coax Tigers star Hank Greenberg to once play in an exhibition game at Jackson. The imprisoned Purples also continued their murderous ways, allegedly arranging for the infamous slaying of state Senator Warren G. Hooper in 1945. For their suspected involvement in the Hooper case, the Purples were shipped to Marquette Prison.
“You didn’t get into Marquette,” Brumm said, “unless you’ve screwed up several times.”
Marquette was where inmates did the hardest time imaginable: sequestered in cramped cells with no toilets and forced to endure the interminable, bone-numbing winters without long johns because the warden was afraid they’d give escapees an edge in the wilderness. And this was where Adams, touring the grounds as a guest of warden Emery Jacques one day in 1953, unexpectedly ran into a pair of old acquaintances: Bernstein and Keywell.
“Say, Jack,” the old Purples said, “how about bringing the Red Wings up for a scrimmage someday?”
“Sure, no problem,” replied Adams, knowing the prison had no facility or team.
Not to be outdone, the warden piped in: “Anytime at all, Jack. Just let us know and we’ll be ready.”
Adams returned to Detroit and promptly forgot the matter. He didn’t realize what his casual conversation had set in motion. Jacques firmly believed that organized recreation helped inmates blow off steam that might otherwise be channeled into the one that ripped apart Jackson Prison the previous year. Unbeknownst to Adams, the warden was in the process of hiring Oakie Brumm as the prison’s first athletic director. Brumm, a member of the University of Michigan’s 1948 NCAA championship hockey team, had just come home to his native Marquette from the University of Alaska, where he had directed the hockey program and built the school’s rink.
“Practically all I heard from inmates from the time I got hired by Jacques was, ‘The Red Wings are coming! The Red Wings are coming!’” Brumm said. “And all I could think was, ‘How am I supposed to get together some kind of team to play them?’”
Brumm spent four years as the prison’s athletic director, during which time he developed football, baseball, hockey, golf, and other recreational programs. He remembers how prison athletes, huffing and puffing their way through football and hockey practices, would nonetheless constantly smoke throughout the sessions. One goalie even installed an ashtray on top of his net. Inmates were known to throw a game for three cartons of cigarettes, conceal homemade weapons inside their uniforms (one convict was stabbed during a pileup), and honor the criminal’s code to never snitch—even when opponents blithely robbed them of their equipment.
Since Marquette was designed for older prisoners (a convict had to be at least 28 years old to be assigned there), most of the inmates who tried out for Brumm’s hockey team in late 1953 were in their 30s and 40s. Few could skate very well. Most exhibited minimum hockey ability. And Brumm had to fight to get hockey sticks for the players. For years, the prison had disallowed sticks, fearing that inmates would use them to attack guards or each other. Instead of ice hockey, inmates had played kick hockey, a kind of soccer on ice.
Brumm used his construction know-how and material donated by his father, a building contractor, to erect a walled rink in a corner of the prison yard. Jacques kept Adams apprised of Brumm’s progress. When informed that the inmates had no pads, skates, or goaltending equipment, Adams donated all of the equipment of the Omaha Knights, which had just ceased being a Wings farm club. As a joke, he had “Emery’s Boys,” in honor of the warden, sewn on the front of each jersey.
Brumm relentlessly drilled his squad of inmates over the winter of 1953-54. They scheduled games against teams from the “free world” and did surprisingly well against them. With a few such games under their belt, Emery’s Boys finally felt confident enough to challenge the Wings.
At this point, Adams may very well have regretted ever having met the Purple Gang or making such an off-the-cuff remark in front of a courtyard of prisoners. But, true to his word, on the morning of February 2, 1954, the entire Wings squad arrived at Marquette County Airport via a twin-prop DC-3 that cost the semipro Marquette Sentinels (the sponsor of the trip) $1,800 to charter. The Wings were fresh off a pair of home-and-home victories over the Chicago Blackhawks. After checking into the Northland Hotel and enjoying a light lunch, the Wings were taken to the old brownstone prison. Some of the Detroit players, tough guys on the ice, were understandably apprehensive.
“The prison game generated all kinds of interest,” Brumm said. “No one knew the caliber of the players or how the Wings and inmates would react to each other. Jack Adams got some criticism at the time. It was one thing to fight at Olympia against other real hockey players. But what they would do in a fight on the ice at Marquette Prison with someone who had already probably killed a couple of people? Not to mention being surrounded by hundreds of the toughest, most volatile ‘fans’ in the country.”
The rousing reception the visitors got quickly put their fears to rest. After dressing in the carpenter’s shack (the only building with a shower large enough to enable it to serve as a locker room) and getting patted down by guards, the Wings trooped onto the immaculately manicured ice, accompanied by shouts of encouragement and recognition from the assembled cons.
“Most of them were great hockey fans,” recalled left winger Johnny Wilson. “They listened to all the games on the radio. They knew all the boys and were cheering us on, which was kind of nice.”
Dutch Reibel, centering a line that included Lindsay and Howe, took the opening face-off at 1:30 that afternoon. The entire prison population of 600 convicts (minus those in solitary confinement) stood around the boards. The weather was perfect for hockey: about 21 degrees, overcast, and no wind. Not that Adams’s troops needed any meteorological advantage.
For the first several minutes, nary an inmate touched the puck. The Wings freely passed it back and forth several times on each rush, skating around the cons as if they were pylons. After about a minute of this dazzling stickwork, someone would finally pop the puck past the prisoners’ goalie, Bugsy Wisocki, a habitual thief who had been released from solitary confinement specifically for this game.
“Howe would get the puck and circle the net three times before putting it in,” Wilson said. “It was funny to watch.”
After 10 minutes, the Wings had a 10-0 lead. By the 15-minute mark the score had grown to 15-0. It could have easily been 50-0. “The only time I touched the puck,” lamented Brumm, who installed himself on defense, “was when I pulled it out of the back of the net.”
Terry Sawchuk, bored by the inactivity at his end of the ice, sat atop his lonesome net. When he spied the puck finally coming his way, he raced up to it and took it halfway down the ice himself. After enduring several more minutes of idleness, he deliberately tripped one of Emery’s Boys so he could be sent to the penalty box to sign a few autographs. Meanwhile, the inmates and guards were hooting and hollering at the overmatched cons and imploring the Wings to pour it on.
At one point Lindsay handed the puck to the cons’ best player, Ed Rilley. “Go, man, go,” the Wings’ captain told him.
Rilley, who had been embarrassed enough, thank you, looked Terrible Ted square in the face. “Fuck you, Ted,” he said. “I ain’t going.” Everyone within earshot of this exchange roared with laughter.
Later, some of the Wings donned the prisoners’ green jerseys to even up the sides. Lindsay skated up to prison officials seated in the primitive press box. “We’ll win this one, see,” he said in his best James Cagney impersonation, “and be outta here in two years.”
For Emery’s Boys, it only seemed like two years. The first period ended with an 18-0 Wings lead, after which nobody bothered to keep score. Everyone was engrossed watching the Wings’ pinpoint passing, crisp shots, and graceful skating. It was a skills exhibition that had the inmates on the ice standing in their tracks, leaning on their sticks, and whistling in admiration. Defenseman Bob Goldham earned the cons’ respect as perhaps the bravest man on the ice, as he repeatedly dropped in front of shots and blocked them with his special belly pad.
“They’ve won the Stanley Cup and a lot of other big prizes,” Brumm said at the end of the exhibition, “but now the Red Wings will receive an award no other hockey team can ever claim.” With that he handed Adams and coach Tommy Ivan a “honey bucket,” a refuse pail that prisoners used in their cells in lieu of a toilet.
“This is a great day,” proclaimed Adams, hoisting the bucket high for all to see. “I’m proud to have such a fine ‘farm’ team up here in the north. The only trouble is, you guys sure have made it tough for me to recruit any of you.”
After showering, the Wings enjoyed dinner with the convict team and several guests from both sides of the prison walls. Each Wing was given a hand-tooled wallet with his name and winged-wheel logo on it. Gordie Howe, who earlier had pronounced the ice surface the best he had ever skated on, gave a talk, as did the warden and Adams. Then at 6 o’clock it was off to the hotel, where the Wings rested an hour before playing another exhibition game at the indoor Marquette Palestra against the semipro Sentinels.
The Wings toyed with the Sentinels, beating them soundly in front of a full house of 3,000 fans. Brumm, who earlier had played with Emery’s Boys, took a regular shift with the Sentinels. This confused Wings defenseman Jim “Red Eye” Hay, who skated up to Brumm shortly after the puck was dropped at 8:30 p.m.
“He said, ‘How the hell did you get out to play down here tonight?’” Brumm recalled with a laugh. “I guess throughout the entire afternoon he never realized I was working at the prison instead of doing time!”
The next morning, when it came time to board the plane for home, it was so cold the engines wouldn’t start. “We sat on the runway and froze,” Johnny Wilson remembered. “Meanwhile Jack was afraid half of his boys would get sick.” The propellers finally turned and the first—and so far, the only—NHL team to play inside a maximum-security prison headed back to Detroit, leaving a considerable share of equipment and goodwill behind. Ten weeks later, the Wings defeated Montreal to win their third Stanley Cup of the decade. The following year they won a fourth, cheered on by the residents of the largest penalty box any of the Wings would ever see.
The prison game’s success made many wonder why more weren’t scheduled. “We tried,” Brumm said, “but not very hard. Somebody should’ve gone to Detroit, sat down with Jack Adams, and ironed out a plan. But he got busy, we got busy, and for some reason it never happened.” Adams continued to donate equipment for the prison’s hockey program, however, even after Brumm left the prison in 1957 for his family’s construction business. For the next thirty years, he moved around the world as a construction project manager. Throughout, memories of the one-of-a-kind game remained fresh. He recounted it with gusto in a book he wrote, wryly titled We Only Played Home Games.
“I’ll tell you what it was,” he said. “It was a hell of an entertaining game from this perspective: when the best team in hockey played the worst, you saw all the skills, the passing and skating ability, that you missed in a tight-checking NHL game. In a game like ours, you realized just how good those Red Wing teams of the ‘50s really were.”