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?
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.