For all the damage that Ned Harkness did to the Red Wings, and for how many years the stench wafted around the franchise even after his 1973 departure, one man saw red flags sooner than anyone else.
Former Red Wings defenseman Gary Bergman died far too young. Bergie passed away 13 years ago on Monday, at age 62. He was a good Red Wing on some bad teams, though he also played in Detroit when the team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1966.
So to kind of commemorate the 13th anniversary of Bergman’s passing, the Winged Wheeler is sharing a story about Bergman and Harkness.
Harkness, a highly successful college hockey coach (and lacrosse), was hired by the Red Wings from Cornell University in the summer of 1970, over the objection of GM Sid Abel.
But somehow owner Bruce Norris and Norris’s flunky, Jim Bishop (who also had a lacrosse background) were convinced to hire Harkness as coach.
The Red Wings made the playoffs in 1969-70, but were swept in the first round by Chicago, all by 4-2 scores, oddly enough.
Norris’s hire of Harkness might have been ahead of everyone’s time, as college coaches eventually were hired in the NHL, but not in 1970.
Harkness had coached the Big Red of Cornell to the 1970 NCAA Championship, with future Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden stopping pucks.
But Harkness was in way over his head with NHL players, and the first to see that was Bergman, who got some creepy feelings early in Ned’s brief but disastrous tenure as coach.
Bergman told the story of how Harkness dropped in on his defenseman, showing up on his doorstep one day in the summer of ’70.
“Ned wanted to introduce himself, which was fine,” Bergman said.
But then things got weird.
Bergman said that Harkness, in his zeal to show Bergie his theories of hockey, began to rearrange the furniture in Bergman’s home, using chairs and sofas etc. to represent players on the ice.
“My wife came in at one point, to offer Ned some coffee, and she saw what he had done to our living room,” Bergman said. “She just sort of shook her head and ducked back into the kitchen.”
Bergman said that while Ned prattled on about hockey and team “spirit” and other “Rah-rah” stuff, Bergie got a bad feeling.
“After Ned left, I had a sinking feeling,” Bergman said. “I had a feeling that we were doomed. I knew it was a bad fit, right away.”
Sure enough, before long, Harkness had turned just about all his players off, most famously Garry Unger over the length of Unger’s hair.
A petition was signed by many of the players in December, stating that they wouldn’t play for Harkness much longer. A notable missing signature was that of Gordie Howe, who was in his last year (at the time) as a player, and who just wanted to get through his final season without drama.
The nadir of Harkness’s coaching tenure was when the Red Wings went into Toronto on January 2, 1971 and quit, losing 13-0.
According to Bergman, after the second period, with Toronto ahead 7-0, Harkness sank to his knees in the dressing and asked, “Why won’t you guys play for me?”
The Maple Leafs then scored six goals in the third period.
Abel resigned in a huff a few days later, prevented from firing Harkness by Norris and Bishop.
“I can’t evaluate (Harkness) as a coach because he isn’t one. He can’t coach,” Abel said. The Red Wings were leading the league in penalties for too many men on the ice, which was another example of Harkness’ inability to organize NHL players.
Harkness was elevated to GM after Abel quit. Former Red Wing Doug Barkley was promoted from the team’s minor league affiliate to coach.
Gary Bergman had a bad feeling about Ned Harkness from the moment the new coach showed up for coffee, uninvited.
In a few months, that bad feeling was spreading like wildfire.