Published on Mar 2, 2013
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First 'Winter Classic' was 59 years ago in Michigan prison
The morning began with Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow in Pennsylvania.
The rodent scurried back to his hole, and as legend has it, his hasty retreat meant six more weeks of winter, but to the hearty residents of Marquette, on the southern shores of Lake Superior that wasn't much of a threat since Michigan's Upper Peninsula has always been accustomed to harsh winters.
What Yoopers weren't used to seeing in 1954 were the famous faces that they only read about in newspapers or heard on radio. But this Groundhog Day -- though meteorically like any other wintry Marquette day: 22 degrees, overcast and windless -- was completely different when the Detroit Red Wings came to town.
There was nothing 'usual' about the Wings' visit. They were invited by a 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.
Clearly, the game 58 years ago had a far different ambience then the last time the Wings played outdoors in the 2009 Winter Classic at Chicago's Wrigley Field or will when the Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs play at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day.
"I was never concerns because I figured that I could take care of myself," said Wings legend Ted Lindsay, of playing against murderers, arsonists, bank robbers and assorted other degenerates. "But I felt very strongly from having been close to them in the summertime and mingling with them that there was no reason to be worried."
Months earlier, Lindsay and general manager Jack Adams visited Marquette Branch Prison during a promotional barnstorming trip through the U.P., which was sponsored by Stroh's Brewery. The two men put on short presentation in the prison's auditorium, then answered some questions from the prisoners.
"It was a Stroh's promotion. They paid us though it wasn't much," Lindsay recalled. "We did it mostly in the Lower Peninsula, probably three or four teams of twosomes went to different lunches, breakfasts and dinners to clubs and all."
In the last two weeks of June, Lindsay and Adams went to the U.P., starting in St. Ignace and on the Soo and Marquette where they ended up at the prison. Lindsay remembers it not being as bad inside as it had been made out to be. But he still inquired with the guards about personal safety. "Oh no, if anybody thought of doing anything they would be dead before he took two steps," Lindsay was told.
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."
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.
After 10 minutes, the Wings had a 10-0 advantage, and by the end of the first period they had an 18-0 lead. It could easily have been 50-0.
"The only time I touched the puck," bemoaned Brumm, who installed himself on defense, "was when I pulled it out of the back of the net."
The Red Wings ran away with the game and the warden presented Adams with a honey bucket as a makeshift trophy. Lindsay doesn't remember the final score, which he calls insignificant.
"It was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would say that they were all perfect gentlemen," Lindsay said. "The emotions that you have at the time are what you should be able to feel. The emotions of what you felt with them and the emotions that you felt for them and how you felt being on the ice with them. All of that stuff you forget."