Back in 1963 a superior hockey team was the principal if not the only athletic claim to fame of obscure Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Having helped RPI achieve that fame, Coach Ned Harkness announced he was leaving to go to Cornell, a power in hockey roughly equivalent to zero. "Why?" someone asked Harkness. "Because," the departing coach answered, "Ithaca is exactly 90 miles closer to the Canadian border than Troy."
That remark proved that Ned Harkness is a hockey realist, and a hockey realist knows that—regardless of all the patriotic and theoretical arguments propounded by hockey's America Firsters—the stuff of which good teams are made can be found only in the hinterlands of Canada, in bus-stop towns with names like Birsay, Sask., Port Credit, Ont. and Kentville, N.S.
By culling the yearlings of towns such as these during the four years since he left Troy, Harkness has established the college above Cayuga's waters as the major hockey power of the East—a situation that fails to please most of the other eastern coaches. But then Ned Harkness—himself a Canadian of Irish descent and temperament—seldom goes out of his way to please.
Rival coaches, particularly those he beats, call Harkness tricky, sneaky and a lot of things less printable. One of his Cornell players says he is a doubletalker. The sports editor of the Cornell Daily Sun calls Ned the most outspoken coach he has ever met. A referee calls him a "past master of delaying tactics." And some athletic authorities at Harvard, Yale and the other Ivy League schools discuss his recruiting methods with snide allusions to the quality of education at Cornell's agriculture college and the questionable taste of inserting paid advertisements in the Canadian press about the benefits to be derived from an Ivy League atmosphere.
January 2, 1967
Harkness justifies the charge that many of Cornell's Canadian hockey players do attend the College of Agriculture with the incontrovertible fact that many of them are farmers by birth and breeding. It would be pretty silly, he says, for the Ferguson twins, Dave and Doug, who were raised on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan and intend to return to some type of agricultural life when they graduate, to major in, say, physics or the classics.
As for that so-called "paid advertisement" urging young Canadians to go Ivy, it was actually a story by Gordon Campbell that appeared in the Toronto Daily Star a year before Harkness left RPI. In the article the author quoted Harkness (who was in town) on the financial value of an engineering degree at Rensselaer and added, "Interested students with the required qualifications can contact Harkness by phoning 4819544 this week only."
Usually Ned Harkness will not take the trouble to refute charges against him. His interest lies entirely in winning hockey games, and this he does with regularity. He won for 13 years at RPI with a pathetically understaffed squad, and he is winning now at Cornell with a rinkful of talent. The joke at Ithaca these days is that the second best hockey team in the East is Cornell's freshmen.
If winning means employing strategy not strictly from the rule book, Harkness tries the strategy. Once, when an undermanned RPI team was losing to St. Lawrence, a friendly critic recalls, "the RPI players were really tired at the end of the second period." Their allotted rest period was supposed to be 10 minutes, but somehow the time stretched out. "The RPI people played both alma maters," the friend went on, "gave away trophies to trackmen, football players and baseball players and then made a few speeches, and during all that time the RPI hockey players were getting extra rest."
Con Elliott, who broadcasts the hockey games for Clarkson College, remembers the night RPI was losing to Clark-son at Troy and suddenly, in the third period, the rink lights went out. "The announcer said over the loudspeaker system that there had been a power failure in the building and that it would take 20 minutes to repair," says Elliott. "Well, now, if there was a power failure, why did the P.A. system continue to work, and why did my electrical equipment still function? Who knows? They said there was a power failure, so it was a power failure, and for the longest time in the dark they played the national anthem forward, backward and sideways."
Harkness' boys at RPI tended to be slower than a lot of other teams, and it seemed that whenever a really fast-skating team came up to Troy the arena would get terribly warm, so warm that the ice often became soft and slushy. At RPI they said it was probably only coincidence or a faulty thermostat, but the soft ice did serve wonderfully well to slow fast skaters down to RPI speed. (There were a few smiles visible at rinkside this year when Cornell's fast-skating outfit played its second game of the season against RPI at Troy and Visiting Coach Harkness complained about the excessive heat.)
If, as a coach, Harkness tends to nettle the opposition, he gets along better with his own players than perhaps any other coach. There is genuine rapport between them. Harkness prefers that the boys call him Ned—not Coach or Mr. Harkness—because "I think it makes them feel a little closer to me." Frequently on nights before a varsity game he will take his team down to the Cornell boathouse, away from the life of the campus, and there they relax together over cards or billiards.
"Sure, he's a doubletalker," says Defenseman Harry Orr, one of the best, "but he doesn't mean any harm by it. He'll come up to me before a game and say, 'Harry, we won't win this one without you,' and I'll get all fired up. Then he'll stop and say the same thing to the guy sitting next to me. Sure, I know, it makes you wonder if he means it. But at the same time you always feel you're the one that's indispensable."
On a bus trip to Potsdam, N.Y. for a game with Clarkson a few weeks ago, Harkness pointedly told everyone how Paul Althouse, another defenseman, scored 17 straight points and whipped him in a Ping-Pong game. "Hey, Paul," Ned asked, "why don't you teach me that backhander of yours?"
"First of all," grunted Althouse, "you've got to learn how to hold the paddle." Harkness laughed longer than anybody.
It's possible that Harkness may never learn how to hold a Ping-Pong paddle (after all, it's better for Cornell hockey morale if he doesn't), but few can match him at the ploys of recruiting. "He snows you with stories about the school and everything," says Dave Quarrie, a senior goaltender, "and when he gets talking to your parents it's all over. I mean, he gets your folks so they like him right off, and soon they're the ones who are selling you on the merits of Cornell."
Another Cornell goalie is Ken Dryden, a sophomore, whose brother, Dave, substituted for Glenn Hall in the Chicago Black Hawks' goal last season. "Ken," says his father, Murray Dryden, "thought he was going to Princeton, but Ned talked him out of it. He sold the school to all of us, and he kept saying that he was building for a national championship. Ken never did get to Princeton."
The striped tie and the button-down shirt of the Ivy League have produced some notable changes in the Harkness exterior, and Ivy success has done something of the same to his psyche. He always has been recognized as a fine teaching coach, a persuasive recruiter and a man with a tremendous ability to incite his players to a greater effort. Now, because of the vast numbers of talented players who come to Cornell on their own to play for him, Harkness can even be pleasant to opposing coaches. But, says one often-bested rival, "It's hard to like Ned, because you remember all those things he pulled down at Troy."
The one thing no rival will forgive Harkness is his ability to latch on to better players, and the peg they hang the charge on is patriotism. By going to Canada for his talent, say his competitors, Harkness downgrades American youth. But the charge is unfair. Hockey players grow in Canada, and almost every U.S. team depends on them. Of all U.S. collegiate coaches, only Snooks Kelley of Roman Catholic Boston College seems able to get by with homegrown talent, and Ned Harkness has the answer to that. "Snooks has the best recruiting system in the country," he says. "Every priest in Boston went to BC, and every parochial-school hockey coach in Boston went to BC. So guess where they send all their good players? To BC, naturally. When Snooks gets finished, there aren't many good players left. Even the other coaches down in Boston, which is the hotbed of hockey in the States, have to go up to Canada for their players. What am I supposed to do?"
So Ned goes up to Canada, recruits his players, brings them down to Cornell, wins games with them, and the people come to watch. This season, when reserved tickets for Cornell's 4,200-seat rink went on sale, anyone not in line by 6:25 a.m. was just out of luck.
The coach himself is a sight worth seeing. He has generally had only a poached egg all day because of his stomach troubles, and he looks very un-Ivy as he stands at rinkside wearing a blue baseball cap tugged down over his ears and a gray coat with CORNELL on the back and HOCKEY STAFF imprinted on the left breast. "What about that?" he yells, pointing out a fancied infraction of the rules to Referee Bob Dupuisas he swings open the gate to direct a line change while play continues. A second later he shuffles nervously behind the bench, almost knocking over one of the Cornell managers, who is carrying two dozen cups of water. Harkness grabs a cup, guzzles once and sprinkles the rest on the floor next to the boards. He guzzles again, and sprays the ice. A Cornell rush proves fruitless, and he squashes the cup and throws it to one side, simultaneously muttering a few profanities. It's time for another line change, and Ned calls the three forwards together for a brief conference. He must have said something right, for Cornell scores almost immediately and eventually wins by five goals.
Back in the dressing room, with the game safely won, Harkness takes off the gray coat and wraps the baseball hat in cellophane for another night. He has worn that same hat since coming to Cornell in 1963, and before that he wore another like it for 13 years at RPI.
He even wears that blue hat at Cornell's lacrosse matches. Lacrosse? A year ago they asked Ned if he would mind coaching the lacrosse team. He agreed, naturally, and with a team of scrubs and misfits not expected to break even he went undefeated and won the Ivy League championship.
And so, at the banquet for Cornell's lacrosse champions, Ned Harkness answered his critics. "I did a great job of recruiting in Canada for all you lacrosse players, didn't I?" he said.