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- Three and OutStewart Mandel | October 11, 2004
Back in 1963 a superior hockey team was the principal if not the only athletic claim to fame of obscure Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Having helped RPI achieve that fame, Coach Ned Harkness announced he was leaving to go to Cornell, a power in hockey roughly equivalent to zero. "Why?" someone asked Harkness. "Because," the departing coach answered, " Ithaca is exactly 90 miles closer to the Canadian border than Troy."
That remark proved that Ned Harkness is a hockey realist, and a hockey realist knows that—regardless of all the patriotic and theoretical arguments propounded by hockey's America Firsters—the stuff of which good teams are made can be found only in the hinterlands of Canada, in bus-stop towns with names like Birsay, Sask., Port Credit, Ont. and Kentville, N.S.
By culling the yearlings of towns such as these during the four years since he left Troy, Harkness has established the college above Cayuga's waters as the major hockey power of the East—a situation that fails to please most of the other eastern coaches. But then Ned Harkness—himself a Canadian of Irish descent and temperament—seldom goes out of his way to please.
Rival coaches, particularly those he beats, call Harkness tricky, sneaky and a lot of things less printable. One of his Cornell players says he is a doubletalker. The sports editor of the Cornell Daily Sun calls Ned the most outspoken coach he has ever met. A referee calls him a "past master of delaying tactics." And some athletic authorities at Harvard, Yale and the other Ivy League schools discuss his recruiting methods with snide allusions to the quality of education at Cornell's agriculture college and the questionable taste of inserting paid advertisements in the Canadian press about the benefits to be derived from an Ivy League atmosphere.
Harkness justifies the charge that many of Cornell's Canadian hockey players do attend the College of Agriculture with the incontrovertible fact that many of them are farmers by birth and breeding. It would be pretty silly, he says, for the Ferguson twins, Dave and Doug, who were raised on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan and intend to return to some type of agricultural life when they graduate, to major in, say, physics or the classics.
As for that so-called "paid advertisement" urging young Canadians to go Ivy, it was actually a story by Gordon Campbell that appeared in the Toronto Daily Star a year before Harkness left RPI. In the article the author quoted Harkness (who was in town) on the financial value of an engineering degree at Rensselaer and added, "Interested students with the required qualifications can contact Harkness by phoning 4819544 this week only."
Usually Ned Harkness will not take the trouble to refute charges against him. His interest lies entirely in winning hockey games, and this he does with regularity. He won for 13 years at RPI with a pathetically understaffed squad, and he is winning now at Cornell with a rinkful of talent. The joke at Ithaca these days is that the second best hockey team in the East is Cornell's freshmen.
If winning means employing strategy not strictly from the rule book, Harkness tries the strategy. Once, when an undermanned RPI team was losing to St. Lawrence, a friendly critic recalls, "the RPI players were really tired at the end of the second period." Their allotted rest period was supposed to be 10 minutes, but somehow the time stretched out. "The RPI people played both alma maters," the friend went on, "gave away trophies to trackmen, football players and baseball players and then made a few speeches, and during all that time the RPI hockey players were getting extra rest."
Con Elliott, who broadcasts the hockey games for Clarkson College, remembers the night RPI was losing to Clark-son at Troy and suddenly, in the third period, the rink lights went out. "The announcer said over the loudspeaker system that there had been a power failure in the building and that it would take 20 minutes to repair," says Elliott. "Well, now, if there was a power failure, why did the P.A. system continue to work, and why did my electrical equipment still function? Who knows? They said there was a power failure, so it was a power failure, and for the longest time in the dark they played the national anthem forward, backward and sideways."
Harkness' boys at RPI tended to be slower than a lot of other teams, and it seemed that whenever a really fast-skating team came up to Troy the arena would get terribly warm, so warm that the ice often became soft and slushy. At RPI they said it was probably only coincidence or a faulty thermostat, but the soft ice did serve wonderfully well to slow fast skaters down to RPI speed. (There were a few smiles visible at rinkside this year when Cornell's fast-skating outfit played its second game of the season against RPI at Troy and Visiting Coach Harkness complained about the excessive heat.)