With Denny McLain sent off to be a Washington Senator, one might suppose that all would be quiet on Detroit's sporting front. And so—with the exception of some justified grumbling on the part of local hockey fans about the low estate into which their team had fallen—it was until a certain morning last week when Sid Abel, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, picked up his morning paper, turned to the sports page and, after a quick look at the headlines, spewed his breakfast coffee all over the room.
The headline that touched off Abel's explosion was the one announcing that his hockey team had lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs the night before by a score of 13-0—the worst drubbing inflicted on Detroit during its 44 years in the National Hockey League. "It would have been worse if we hadn't blocked the kick after Toronto's second touchdown," one of the Red Wing players cracked. At his breakfast table that morning, however, Sid Abel was in no mood for jokes, even sour ones, and his temper was not soothed by a feature article running in the paper alongside the hockey story, "RED WINGS," ran the headline on top of this story, "ARE PAYING FOR THE SINS OF 10 YEARS." The statement was attributed to one Ned Harkness.
As far as Abel was concerned, that tore it: a rookie coach from Cornell who had never in his life played so much as one period of National League hockey blaming his predecessor (i.e., Abel himself) for the fact that in only half a season he had turned a respectable playoff team into one of the worst in the NHL. Coach Ned Harkness, said General Manager Sid Abel to himself, would have to go and that was that.
Abel had more than a mere general manager's reason for feeling as he did. He had been part of the Red Wing organization as player, coach and front-office executive for nearly 30 years, and back in the late 1940s, along with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, he had been one-third of perhaps the most successful forward line in hockey history, the famed "Production Line" that led Detroit to five of their seven straight league championships. How, Abel must have asked himself, could anyone take the tradition he stood for and so drag it through the slush?
January 18, 1971
Feeling sure of his ground and knowing that Detroit's players were so fed up that "they had quit playing for Harkness weeks ago," Abel flew to Chicago to discuss the whole matter with Red Wing Owner Bruce Norris (brother of Jim Norris, late owner of the Chicago Black Hawks). There was really little to discuss. All Abel had to do was point out to Norris that, despite the successful record he had fashioned as a college hockey coach at Cornell, Ned Harkness had made a mess of the Red Wings, had antagonized all his players, had learned nothing about big-league hockey and should promptly be fired.
All this may have seemed obvious to Sid Abel. It didn't seem obvious at all to Jim Bishop, the lank, mod-styled organization man whom Norris had brought to the Wings as executive director and on whose words he leaned heavily. In sports, Bishop's major field of expertise is lacrosse, but he has served as a director in both the Central and Western hockey leagues.
It was Bishop who persuaded Norris to hire Harkness, an old lacrosse crony of his, as coach to succeed Abel, and it was Bishop who marshaled statistics to prove that Abel himself had not done well at the job during the long time through which he held it. In 12 seasons of coaching, Bishop pointed out, Abel had brought the Red Wing team to only a single first-place finish; he had missed the playoffs four times, and as a general manager responsible for team development he had not produced even one new major-leaguer with all-star potential.
All this Norris must have mentioned to his general manager as they talked on and on through much of the night in Chicago. With the talk done, Abel returned to Detroit.
At 11 o'clock the following (Wednesday) morning he walked into his office at the Olympia Stadium. A few minutes later his daughter Linda, who is also his secretary, burst out the door sobbing. That afternoon the papers learned why: Sid Abel had terminated his 28-year association with the Red Wings. "I discussed the policies of the hockey team with Mr. Norris," he told the press, "and I found I could not accept them." "I can't accept Harkness as a coach," he added later. "I can't even assess him as a coach because he isn't one. He can't coach. This club is capable of being in the playoffs, and with proper coaching it will be in the playoffs. Right now it is by far the most disorganized Red Wing team I've ever been associated with."
The announcement of Abel's departure stunned not only Red Wing fans but Red Wing players, and few in either category could argue with his appraisal of the team. Disorganization was running so rife that everybody seemed to be blaming everybody for everything. Throughout the season so far about all the Red Wings had to keep them going were the performances of veterans Howe and Alex Delvecchio, the team captain. Yet young Garry Unger, who had his own run-in with Harkness over the length of his strawberry-blond hair, jokingly suggested, with some reason, that everything was the fault of the two old-timers. "Why do things differently when you still have Howe and Delvecchio around?" was his point.
Unger is perhaps a better example than he is a propounder of what went wrong under Harkness. A 42-goal, razor-cut-hair man last year, he reported to camp at the start of this season with locks as long as, well, Derek Sanderson's. The former college coach who had insisted on short hair at Cornell suggested that the young pro visit the barbershop. Unger refused to go. There was tension for a while, though Harkness eventually dropped the matter. His attitude toward Unger's hair, however, was characteristic, consisting as it did of treating a grown man like a schoolboy.
Harkness started his season in the pros by setting down firm rules about smoking, about drinking, even about phone calls. There were constant pep talks in the collegiate style. "We've had more meetings than the negotiators who settled the strike at General Motors," said Defenseman Gary Bergman, who has spent six years in the NHL.
Harkness' collegiate gung-ho extended even to his operation of the Detroit bench. Instead of stationing himself at a position of command where he could keep firm track of all that was going on during a game, the new coach tended to dart about slapping his players on the back, giving them the old clenched-fist, go-to-it-boy treatment, whispering to this one, giving that one a poke in the ribs—endeavoring to create enthusiasm but in fact creating only confusion. Changing lines in mid-game, which a coach must accomplish about once every two minutes in a major league hockey game, is a tricky maneuver that takes real skill. One result of Harkness' unorthodox conduct of his bench was that Detroit was frequently penalized for having too many men on the ice at one time.
As the season deteriorated from loss to loss, the disaffection grew between the Red Wing players and their new-coach. Many of the players were openly critical. "He told us to speak up and I did," says Unger, "but I don't think it's done me much good." "I think what bothered me most," said Howe, "is that we didn't have any plays, nothing that starts from here and goes to there. The only guy who made any plays for us was Delvecchio."
In Harkness' defense it should be pointed out that he was hexed almost from the start. Among other things, his well-intentioned effort to move Howe from up front to a defensive position failed, not because Gordie couldn't play defense (he can play anything) but because there was no one on the sparse Detroit roster capable of taking his place at right wing. At the very beginning of the season the injuries set in. Ron Harris, a defenseman, hurt a shoulder. Then Frank Mahovlich, the high-shooting left wing on the Howe-Delvecchio line, injured his knee. Defenseman Gary Bergman was hurt in Los Angeles; Roy Edwards, the team's only experienced goalie, got a hairline fracture of the skull and missed 11 games; and Howe himself injured a rib cartilage. Even now, seven weeks later, Gordie is not his old self, though he's playing regularly.
Harkness places much of the blame for the fact that he was caught short-handed on Abel, who, among other things, traded away last season's alternate goalie, Roger Crozier. Soon afterward, to further weaken an already weak defense, temperamental Defenseman Carl Brewer decided to quit once again. "Sid says that I inherited a third-place team," Harkness complains, "but without Crozier and Brewer last year's club would never have made the playoffs."
As for the players he had left, Harkness says: "There are only about half a dozen on this team that are my type of player. I want guys who go both ways, guys who forecheck, guys who backcheck, guys who do it all. I don't like the guys who get that black vitamin [which is what Ned Harkness calls a puck] and go only one way. We're just not going to have them around here."
Whatever the rights and the wrongs of the matter, by the time the Wings reached Buffalo last week to take on the absolute low man on the NHL totem pole—the Sabres—the disenchantment between the players and their coach had become too deep for any resolution. Brimming with defeat and discouragement, the players met privately before the game, then again in the dressing room, where Gordie Howe did his best to stir them up.
It did little good. True to their coach's snarl that "My guys don't even breathe on the other guys," the . passive Wings let the Sabres slash them to ribbons. After the 7-4 defeat Harkness had the good sense to chat with a friend from Ithaca, a Cornell dean who happened to be at the game. "He told me there was still a job for me there if I ever want it," said the defeated coach later.
As it turned out, there was also a job waiting for him in Detroit—if he wanted it. On the day after the Buffalo game Red Wing executives—minus, necessarily, Sid Abel, and minus Bruce Norris, who couldn't make it but phoned at least 25 times—conferred for six hours in the Olympia offices. The confab ended in an official announcement from embattled Owner Norris. Ned Harkness, it stated, would no longer be the coach of the Detroit Red Wings; instead he would be the general manager.
"I'm pleased they didn't shoot me down," Harkness said with commendable understatement.
If he was pleased, so, for varying reasons, was everybody else except, perhaps, Sid Abel. Doug Barkley, a former NHL player who lost an eye five years ago manning the Red Wing defense, was brought on from a minor league coaching job to take Harkness' place on the bench against the Sabres that night.
Doug got a big greeting from the fans at the start. Throughout the game he managed his team with aplomb, staying mostly in one position, with a foot up on the bench. Suddenly revived, the Red Wings themselves went out and—well, if they didn't exactly knock the stuffing out of the Sabres, they did beat them 3-2.
One other thing: the Wings won on a power play made possible by the fact that Sabre Coach Punch Imlach was penalized for having too many men on the ice.