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Back Then, Madonna Marsden
The Day the Pros Faced Off with the Cons: Marquette's Most Infamous Hockey Game

February 2, 1954 dawned like any other wintry Marquette day: 22 degrees, overcast and windless. For most residents, the day promised ex-tended blahs. But for outdoor hockey enthusiast Leonard "Oakie" Brumm, the meteorological conditions were ideal: There would be no sun to soften and no wind to ripple the ice. His ten-man crew had been go-ing over the rink for twenty-four hours with everything but a toothbrush, removing bumps and cracks to create a perfect surface for the Detroit Red Wings.

    Later, when Gordie Howe skated the rink, Brumm's dream became a reality. Howe declared the surface "the best he had ever played on."

  If the ice was the best, Coach Brumm's team was undoubtedly the worst. At 1:30 p.m., Red Wing center Dutch Rebel took the face-off against murderers, arsonists, bank robbers and assorted other social deviants collectively known as the Marquette Prison Pirates.

  The game between the pros and the cons generated media interest and speculation for weeks. "The prison was the attraction," says Brumm, who from 1953 to 1957 served as its athletic director, "but the prison team was the huge question mark. Nobody other than myself really knew what the convicts' team would be like. Calls came in from the media and interested parties from literally the entire hockey-playing world. Some tried to build up the game by emphasizing the convicts' crimes and the possibility of a real brawl. Some just could not imagine a real hockey team made up of long term convicts playing on a regulation-size ice rink inside prison walls."

  The person who first imagined the scenario was Emery Jacques, the prison's last politically appointed warden. Following the April 1952 Jackson Prison riot, its ringleaders had been transferred to his custody. Although they were housed in Marquette's quarantine block, Jacques was wary about their explosive capabilities.

  Marquette's inmate population comprised the worst of the worst. They were older: two-, three-, or four-time recidivists with terrible reputations and volatile tempers. In July 1950, several prisoners attempted to take Michigan's governor hostage while he was eating in the prison dining room. In May 1953, seven prisoners armed with knives cut their way out of Marquette's C-block with an acetylene torch.

  Marquette Prison was a riot waiting to happen. Jacques was an astute politician as well as a respected penologist who knew there were few prospects to keep the inmates quiet and completely occupied.

  According to Michigan law, convicts could perform only minimal labor. They could grow their own food (on prison farms) and make overalls, cigarettes, brushes, wooden boxes and snow fences for the prison and other state institutions. Jacques could not increase the internal jobs in the prison because two men (one black and one white) already staffed each job. In some cases, three or four inmates were assigned one man's tasks.

   Summer was coming on, and Jacques concluded that the only way to keep the inmates busy and the prison temperature down was through sports and recreation. So he hired Oakie Brumm (a University of Michigan physical education major who had coached hockey at the Universities of Wyoming and Alaska) as prison athletic director.

  From the beginning, the appointment caused controversy. Brumm built a shuffleboard court and introduced paddleball and racquetball as alternatives to one-wall handball during the yard exercise periods, prompting the guards to claim he was turning the prison into a "country club." Questions like, "What the hell kind of a playhouse do you think we are running here?" were asked with greater frequency when he constructed an unofficial nine-hole miniature golf course in the main yard. "You better make damn sure nobody gets killed with those clubs," he was warned.

  The custodial staff viewed hockey sticks even more suspiciously. Before Brumm, the prison yard had been flooded and the inmates could either skate for pleasure or play "kick hockey," a version of soccer on ice.

  Nor were the materials donated by Brumm's contractor father for ice rink construction greeted with gusto: eighty-five concrete forms, several lengths of 2 x 6s for foundation runners, 2 x 4s for braces, all kinds of stakes and blocking, plus 4 x 8 x 3/4-inch plywood sheets.

   "The inmates and I saw all of this as a future hockey rink," recalls Brumm. "Most of the custodial staff considered this serious escape equipment, at least until it was nailed down."

  While visiting the prison, Red Wing general manager Jack Adams noticed the construction materials and made an offhand promise that if Brumm built it, they would come—provided someone else would pay the bills. The costs would consist, at the very least, of a roundtrip charter airplane from Detroit to Marquette plus first-class hotel rooms and all meals for the Red Wing traveling party.

  Jacques was confident Marquette's semi-pro Sentinels plus the thousands of hockey fans in Marquette would foot the bill. The Warden assured Sentinel executives that in addition to the afternoon prison game, he could make arrangements with Adams for the pros to play against the Sentinels in the city ice arena—the Palestra—that same night.

  The Sentinel executives never even blinked at the possible costs. They knew that in hockey-mad Marquette the game against the Red Wings would draw a full house to the old Palestra, and for years they had been trying to get a "Big League" team to play the locals.

  The prisoners never really expected to win their game against the powerful professionals, but it was an event they awaited eagerly for months. When the iron doors to the prison clanged shut behind the Red Wings, the usually drab prison atmosphere changed dramatically. Although sullen, gray clouds hung over the "Alcatraz of the North," most of the prisoners swore the sun was shining.

  The game on the prison ice was the greatest thrill most of the inmates and staff had ever experienced. Coach Ivan put his team through a regular series of big league drills and exhibitions, and then the Red Wings defeated the Pirates soundly by displaying some of the sizzling stick work that made them so famous.

  Richard Bok, in his Illustrated History of the Detroit Red Wings, describes these humorous highlights of the game:

  For the first several minutes…nary an inmate touched the puck. Meanwhile, 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 stick work, someone would finally pop it past the prisoners' goalie,…a habitual thief who had been released from solitary especially for this game….

  After 10 minutes, the Wings had a 10-0 lead. By the 15-minute mark it had grown to 15-0. It could easily have been 50-0.

  "The only time I touched the puck," laments Brumm, who installed himself on defense, "was when I pulled it out of the back of the net."

  Wings' goalie 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 a few more minutes of idleness, he deliberately tripped one of Emery's Boys—so he could be sent to the penalty box and sign a few autographs.

  Meanwhile, the inmates and guards were hooting and hollering and imploring the Wings to pour it on the overmatched cons. At one point Ted Lindsay handed the puck to the cons' best player…. "Go, man, go," the Wings' captain told him.

  [The prisoner] who had been embarrassed enough…looked into Terrible Ted's scarred face.

  "Bleep you, Ted," said [he]. "I ain't going." Everyone within earshot of this exchange roared with laughter.
  At the prisoner-prepared banquet that followed, the Stanley Cup champion Wings were presented with yet another trophy. Holding a "honey bucket" (the prison's version of a maximum-security toilet) high above his head, Adams declared: "This is a great day. 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."

   At six o'clock the Wings departed for their hotel to rest an hour before toying with the Sentinels and defeating them soundly before a full house of 3,000 fans. Brumm, who had played in the afternoon game, took up his regular position with the semi-pros. One baffled Wing skated over to him and inquired, "How in the hell did you get out to play down here tonight?"

  "I guess throughout the entire afternoon he never realized I was working at the prison instead of doing time!" Brumm recalls with amusement.

  The next morning, the first—and only—NHL team to play inside a prison returned to Detroit, leaving a considerable amount of equipment and goodwill behind. Ten weeks later, the Red Wings defeated Montreal to win their third Stanley Cup of the decade. The following year they won a fourth, cheered on by the 600 occupants of Marquette's long-term penalty box.

—Madonna Marsden

Note: Brumm recounts more memories of his Marquette Prison days in his forthcoming (and wryly-titled book) We Only Played Home Games.

Article courtesy of The Marquette Monthly


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