SI Vault
Mark Mulvoy
January 18, 1971
Ruffled feathers were flying in Detroit last week as the city's discouraged and defeated professional hockey players sought to break free of the cage in which a gung-ho college coach kept them pinioned
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January 18, 1971

Poor Broken Wings

Ruffled feathers were flying in Detroit last week as the city's discouraged and defeated professional hockey players sought to break free of the cage in which a gung-ho college coach kept them pinioned

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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.

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