Ned Harkness is dead. Now maybe he’ll join Gary Bergman up above, and they can do some more interior re-decorating. If Gary will speak to him, that is.
Harkness died Friday, at age 89 – on his birthday in fact. A stroke had been suffered recently, they say, and that was the final straw.
So mathematics says that Harkness was 50 when he was tabbed to coach the Red Wings, way back in 1970. It was less than a year after the Wings fired Bill Gadsby just two games into the 1969-70 season – two games that Gadsby, apparently, made the mistake of winning. When I spoke to Gadsby about it a couple of years ago, Bill still didn’t know why he got the ziggy.
So here came Harkness, fresh from college. Ned had done some serious winning at the college level, first at RPI and later at Cornell. These were the days before college players found their way onto NHL rosters with any regularity. Perhaps Harkness’s most famous pupil in college was goalie Ken Dryden, who helped Ned and the Big Red win the NCAA championship in 1970.
It was a perplexing move, hiring Harkness – one of many that Wings owner Bruce Norris engaged in as he started to lose it. NHL teams simply weren’t hiring coaches from college in 1970. It would have been a trailblazing hire – had it worked.
Bergman, the Wings’ craggy defenseman who was never shy about taking on management, was minding his own business one day in the summer of ’70. Then came a knock on the door.
“It was Ned,” Bergman, who died in 2000, said in a published interview. “He sticks out his hand and introduces himself as my new coach.”
Which was fine and dandy. Until Bergman let the new coach into his house.
“He’s a bundle of energy, and he wants to talk about his theories of hockey,” Bergman continued. “So he starts moving the furniture around in my living room, to symbolize hockey players.”
You know, that chair is a defenseman; that sofa is a left wing. Or something like that.
Bergman said he looked at the spectacle taking place in his living room, his home being turned into Olympia Stadium II, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Then Gary’s wife poked her head in, to say hello to the visitor.
“She comes in, sees her living room turned upside down, and gives me this look,” Bergman said. “I just smiled and said, ‘Honey, this is Ned Harkness, the new coach of the Red Wings.’
“Then she offers Ned some coffee, as if nothing was the matter.”
Bergman went on to say, though, that he heard plenty about the matter after Harkness had left.
“Right there,” Bergman confessed about the furniture rearranging, “I knew that we were in trouble.”
Gary Bergman (top) and Ned Harkness
Somehow, owner Norris – and some would say the alcohol might have played a part (“When he fired me, there was a glass of Scotch in front of him,” Gadsby told me) – allowed Ned Harkness to infiltrate the organization and hold it hostage, as simply its coach. Bergman and several other Red Wings players rebelled. They wanted no more part of Harkness as their coach – and this was before Christmas.
A petition was circulated. The list of players who signed it included, purportedly, even Gordie Howe. The petition said, basically, this: Get rid of Harkness, or else there’ll be trouble.
The petition was submitted to GM Sid Abel, who was beginning to tire of Harkness’s college act, too.
On a Saturday night in early January, the Red Wings went into Toronto for Hockey Night In Canada. Then, as if to underline their feelings about playing for Ned Harkness, they lost to the Maple Leafs. The score was 13-0 – one of the most infamous results in team history.
Abel went into Norris’s office, armed with that poor effort and the petition in his pocket.
“We need to fire Ned,” was what Sid pretty much told his owner. No word whether the Scotch was out and visible.
Norris answered with some choice words about where Abel and the players could put that petition. Maybe the Scotch had been there, after all.
Flabbergasted, Abel quit. Then Norris had his own remedy: promote Harkness into the GM chair. At least he wouldn’t be the coach anymore. And Norris could get back to his Scotch.
There have been villains in Detroit, as in any major sports city. Many of them here, though, haven’t necessarily been those in uniform. Unless by uniform you mean suit and tie.
There was Russ Thomas, the stubborn, cheap GM of the Lions. Thomas was not only hated by the fans; he wore the black hat and twirled his handlebar mustache with the media and players, too. There was Bo Schembechler – Tigers president version. Bo became Public Enemy No. 1 when he fired Ernie Harwell from the broadcast booth. Of course, there is Matt Millen – today’s Bad Guy. Stories of the protests against Millen will go down as legend in these parts.
Ned Harkness was a big time enemy here – and maybe that’s not the greatest thing for me to be writing in the wake of the man’s death, as part of this twisted obituary. But it’s true. They even have a name for Ned’s time here: Darkness with Harkness. Because after Ned became the GM, and after he had traded away most of the Red Wings’ best players, never getting face value in return, hockey fans in Detroit got cranky. So did the players themselves. Players like Bergman, who was forever at odds with Ned and the front office, it seemed.
One of Ned’s most dastardly deeds, in my mind, was when he fired coach Johnny Wilson in 1973. The Red Wings had barely missed the playoffs, and Wilson had been credited with taking Ned’s chicken feathers and turning it into chicken salad. Wilson was a bright, young NHL coach who could have really been something in Detroit. But Ned fired him anyway.
I saw Wilson about two years ago as I prepared to monitor a roundtable discussion about hockey with Johnny, Ted Lindsay, and Shawn Burr. I told Johnny what I thought of Harkness’s decision to fire him.
“I always thought you got shafted,” I told Wilson, though I don’t think I used the word “shafted.”
Wilson smirked and shrugged.
“Darkness with Harkness,” was all he said.
It was all that needed to be said.