Remembering the Time the Red Wings Went to Jail


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Before the Red Wings squared off against the Chicago Blackhawks in an outdoor game on New Year’s Day in 2009, they went to jail.

On
February 2, 1954, Detroit played its first outdoor game in franchise history,
at Marquette State Prison, against a squad of inmates who were, fittingly,
known as the Pirates. The exhibition game had been in the works since the
previous offseason when Marquette’s athletic director Leonard “Oakie” Brumm
spoke with general manager Jack Adams about bringing the Red Wings to his penitentiary on the southern shore of Lake Superior. 

According to a story in
the Milwaukee Sentinel, Adams had
actually help get Marquette’s hockey team off the ground in the early 1950s, when he donated uniforms and equipment. Initially, the so-called Pirates were only able to skate
around and kick the puck with their feet, but were eventually given sticks,
perhaps to prepare for their exhibition game against the Red Wings.

Despite
the cold weather that early day in February, it was reported that nearly all of the prison’s
population, save those being held in solitary confinement, braved the frigid
temperatures to watch the contest. Skating on a rink in the prison yard built
by Brumm and the inmates, Gordie Howe was said to have remarked it was the “best
ice he had every played on.”

Most
sources suggest that the Red Wings, unsurprisingly, dominated their opponents.
After the first ten minutes of play, it was reported that Detroit was up 10-0 and that by the end of the first period, had increased this lead to
eighteen. 

Red Wings Graph

By that point, they stopped officially keeping score and it’s likely
that the Red Wings were not interested in frustrating their opponents by
filling the net any further. In fact, to avoid taking all of the fun
affair out of the affair, they swapped players to try to keep things
interesting. Terry Sawchuk found himself backstopping the Pirates for part of the
game and Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe both skated for Marquette. 

While
there’s no question that a team consisting of Howe, Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio
would have had no problem filling the net against a gang of non-professionals, let alone a squad of unseasoned prisoners, the
press downplayed the outcome of the game. The following day, the Globe and Mail ran a story that noted
that the Red Wings had only won by three, with the Pirates putting up two goals against a team that was on the cusp of finishing atop the standings for the sixth straight season. While the Globe most certainly
got the score wrong, it did note that the contest was shortened so
that the Red Wings could give the inmates a passing and shooting demonstration.
When you’re down by three touchdowns in a game of hockey and you can get some one-on-one lessons from
Gordie Howe, you take it.

By all
accounts it was a spirited game that was not quickly forgotten by both the Red Wings and
inmates alike. What makes this episode even more incredible was that by this point
in the season, Detroit was 28-12-9 and were poised to try and capture their
third Stanley Cup since 1950. Think of it this way. The Red Wings went from
beating the Black Hawks 5-1 in Chicago on January 31 to playing in a prison
yard exhibition game on February 2, and followed that up with a 5-0 win against the Bruins at
home on February 4. It’s an incredible story that attests to the heart and
compassion that were hallmark characteristics among many of the players who made up that memorable 1953-54
Detroit squad.

All that being said, it’s a tale that few, outside of the most ardent Red Wings fans, are aware of. 

It’s not even mentioned in Brian McFarlane’s history of the franchise, nor does Gordie Howe include it in his official autobiography. 

Nevertheless, the story caught the eye of Hollywood in late 1980s and was adapted for the silver screen. However, following harsh reviews from critics and weak box office sales, it was pulled from circulation and all the remaining copies were destroyed. Luckily, Wings Nation was able to pull some strings and recover the movie poster from it’s initial release in 1990.  

gordie goes to jail

Poster from the 1990 film The Red Wings Go to Jail. Artwork by Josh Baitz.

Today,
Marquette Branch is still one of Michigan’s most notorious maximum security prisons.
It is classified as a Level V facility and is fortified by razor wire and eight
gun towers. As a result, don’t expect to see Zetterberg and company lace them
up in Marquette this year to commemorate the sixty-third anniversary of the
time the Red Wings went to jail.

(Editor’s note: The Red Wings Go to Jail is not an actual movie, but we wish it was. It’s based off Ernest Goes to Jail, which is a cinematic classic. Everything else in this post, however, is 100% factual.)