No heels in the Achilles

Union College didn't have a team, a schedule or even any ice when Coach Ned Harkness arrived, but now it battles the best on even terms in the Achilles Arena
February 07, 1977

Two years ago, when Dr. Thomas N. Bonner, the 53-year-old president of Union College (enrollment 2,152) in Schenectady, N.Y., offered Ned Harkness the job as Union's hockey coach, Bonner confessed that the position had a number of drawbacks. For one, the school didn't have an ice rink. Also, there was no team—not a single player. And there was no schedule—not a single opponent. Union College, in fact, hadn't played hockey since 1939, the year when an early thaw melted the team's pond and all home games had to be canceled.

Harkness had to laugh. He had heard the same thing before. His first coaching job, as an unemployed bombardier out of the RCAF in 1945, was at RPI, the small engineering college in Troy, N.Y., just a few slap shots north of Albany. He started the hockey program from zero, and in 14 seasons his RPI teams had a 187-90-7 record. In 1954, using just 10 skaters, RPI won the NCAA championship.

Harkness had heard the same thing again in 1963, when he moved on to Cornell, where hockey was looked upon as an upgraded club sport. In his seven years at Ithaca, Harkness' teams had 163 victories against just 27 losses and two ties. National champion Cornell's 29-0 record in 1970 still stands as the greatest single season in college hockey history. Combine that with the three previous seasons and the total isn't too bad, either: 110-5-1, plus four Ivy League titles, four ECAC championships and two NCAA championships.

"Well, sir," Harkness growled to Dr. Bonner, "under the circumstances I don't think I can promise a national championship the first year. But if you can wait a few years...when do I start?"

Union College, the oldest non-denominational college in the country, is situated on 100 picturesque acres sprawled across a slight rise overlooking the older section of Schenectady. In its 179-year history it has turned out one President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, class of 1848—two if you count the months Jimmy Carter spent there in a naval V-8 program during World War II—16 U.S. Senators, 13 governors and 102 college presidents.

Into this bastion of athletic dormancy arrived Harkness, a broken-nosed warrior invading an ancient world of wisdom. A soft word here, a barked command there, bustling, building, seemingly tireless at the age of 55, Harkness, once labeled the Poison Ivy of the Ivy League, broke ground for the building of his third dynasty in April 1975. When he wasn't overseeing the construction of the $1.5 million rink—a gift to Union by H. Laurence Achilles, a 90-year-old professor emeritus of religious education—he was charming local businessmen into sponsoring such necessities as 3,000 seats, a scoreboard, a carpeted and stereoed locker room that would be welcome in the NHL, and a modest press box. "If you can't go first class," says Harkness, "don't make the trip."

At the same time, Harkness scheduled 24 varsity games for the 1975-76 season. But he still needed one more thing. "Let's get a team," he growled at his three main scouts: John Carroll, a young Boston restaurateur who played under Harkness at Cornell; Toronto fireman Billy Purcell; and Bobby Brinkworth, a Detroit computer salesman who played for Harkness at RPI. Harkness always growls, even when he is happy. It's the price his vocal cords have paid for a half-century of bristling competitiveness.

"The first thing I had to do was tell prospects where Union is," says Carroll. "But when I mentioned Harkness, the school could have been on Mars. They all just wanted to play for him."

Typical of those who applied was Denis Gazzola, a 6'2", 211-pound right wing who was voted the most valuable hockey player and the finest all-round athlete at his high school in Thorold, Ontario. "I was all set to go to Cornell and it would have cost me a lot less money," Gazzola says. "Tuition is less at Cornell and they offered me more of a scholarship. But then I got this letter from Union. Union? I thought: What is that? But I knew this guy at home, Dan Lodboa, who was an All-America for Harkness at Cornell. He told me: wherever Ned goes, if he wants you, you go. If he goes west, you go west. If he goes south, you go south."

Harkness said come to Union, and Gazzola came.

Harkness himself was no stranger to the Union campus. Born in Ottawa, he spent much of his childhood in Glens Falls, N.Y., where his father, Pop Harkness, ran a plumbing and construction business and commuted 40 miles south to Schenectady, where he coached hockey and lacrosse at Union. Pop Harkness is in the Hall of Fame of both hockey (U.S.) and lacrosse (Canada); son Ned also coached lacrosse at both RPI and Cornell.

"From a little boy I grew up on this campus," Ned says. "In 1929 I watched Union win its only national championship. In lacrosse. Dad was the coach. My brother Bill went to school here. I guess it is fitting that I ended up here."

Looking back, Harkness is glad he left the college scene for five years to join the Detroit Red Wings; he coached the club briefly, then moved upstairs as general manager. The pros refused to buy his work ethic and in the end prompted Harkness to quit. "I made a lot of close friends in Detroit, people who are still close to me now," he says. "I learned a great deal. And the contacts have been unbelievable. But I think now that no coach, no owner, no general manager can control his destiny in the pros. The players are excellent athletes. But the player associations take over. Motivation is gone and money takes over. If you like being a puppet, great. Not me. If I am going to be blamed for a decision, I want it to be my decision.

"The Detroit experience has made me appreciate being a college coach more. Here at Union I'm close to my kids. I control my own destiny. I can mold kids and do things for them, and down the road I'll know I played a very important part in a kid's life. I kind of bask in their glory, in their accomplishments when they leave college. You can't pay your bills with that, but can you think of anything more wonderful?"

Harkness has prepared his Union teams well. He is a demanding drillmaster with only one criterion: perfection. Well acquainted with the frailties of mankind, he begrudgingly will settle for superb conditioning, precision teamwork, stunning stickhandling, bruising defensive play, a lightning attack and 60 minutes of overall excellence. A 6-1 victory sloppily won means a long and hard practice the following day.

Harkness unleashed his industrious freshmen a year ago. Union opened with a 14-4 victory over Cortland and romped through a 21-1 season, losing only to Merrimack, 5-1. Led by Kip Churchill, who had 26 goals and 36 assists for 62 points, Union outscored its opposition 177 to 59. Then Army reminded the Dutchmen how young they really were, defeating Union 3-2 in the opening round of the Division II playoffs.

As the school year ended, Harkness was content. "Not too bad a record." he said.

"Only two losses," said Bob Fusco. Union's sports information director. who, when the recording system breaks down, has been known to wing The Star-Spangled Banner before a game.

"Not that," said Harkness. "Their grades."

Of a possible 4.0, the team finished with a cumulative 2.61 grade average. Nine players made the dean's list. Leading them all was Grant Judge—the second highest scorer behind Churchill—who had a 3.67 average in engineering. Athletes can't hide at Union. There are no crip courses, no basket-weaving majors.

"I know a lot of people at the school were afraid I had imported a bunch of goons," says Harkness. "At first they looked at them like they expected to see horns growing out of their heads. Never has any team had so much pressure."

Strengthened by seven freshmen, Union began this season with a 3-2 overtime victory over Northeastern, a strong Division I team. Harkness hopes to be playing in Division I soon, and that is where this gifted team belongs, but for the moment he has run into strong opposition on the Union campus. There are fears that a big-time athletic team would give Union the reputation of being a jock school.

Union swept through its first six rivals by a combined score of 60-12, including a 6-3 victory over Ohio State, then the Division I Central leader, in the opening round of Union's first holiday tournament. In Achilles Arena that night were nine pro scouts, many of whom admitted it was their first trip to a Division II school. Mostly they had come to watch Steve Baker, Union's 6'3", 200-pound goalie from Braintree, Mass. According to the scouts, Baker probably will be the first goalie selected in the NHL's amateur draft this year. Harkness always seems to find quality goaltenders. At Cornell, he won NCAA championships with Ken Dryden, now Montreal's top goal-tender, and Dave Elenbaas, Montreal's top minor league goalie.

A sociology major, Baker handles the scouts the same way he handles enemy shots—coolly. "I'm really flattered, but I have two years of school left," he says. "As a team we have set a lot of goals. And I've got my own goals. I just feel fortunate that I can play for Ned and with this team. Ned is such an incredible man. He makes you a winner both on the ice and in life."

Following a 5-5 tie with Western Ontario in the tournament final, the Dutchmen got a bit of a comeuppance. Between easy victories, they lost two road games, by 5-4 to Buffalo and 9-3 to Clarkson, ranked No. 1 in the East and No. 2 in the nation at the time.

"We really played well against Clark-son, a heck of a lot better than the score shows," Harkness says. "We weren't any better than they were, but I think we are just as good. It was a lot of little breaks, and the crowd. The home crowd really gave Clarkson a tremendous lift. I just wish there was some way we could get them at Union." Unable to get Clarkson at Achilles Arena, Union had to settle for the University of New Hampshire last Friday night. UNH had displaced Clarkson as No. 1 in the East and No. 2 in the nation, and had lost only two Division I games all year as it faced off against Harkness' squad. A standing-room-only crowd of 3,400 braved a blizzard and subzero temperatures to see the game, and it was never close. In one of the most-shocking upsets since RPI's win in the 1954 NCAA championship, Union stunned UNH 8-4 as Forward Don Marshall scored three goals.

Union doesn't lose many at home. In fact, the Dutchmen don't lose many anywhere. In their brief history, they have won 32, lost five, and tied one, and they have outscored their opponents 303-109. And just think, in two years most of Harkness' guys will be seniors.

PHOTOHarkness' gung-ho approach to coaching was mocked by the NHL pros, but the same tactics are helping him build his third collegiate dynasty.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)