Today's sad sack Red Wings recall the 1970s to this old-timer

Published Dec. 11, 2019

Red Wings hockey in the 1970s was a combination of theater of the absurd, the Twilight Zone and Keystone Kops. As someone who lived through it all with an all-too-clear memory of the entire debacle of a decade, I never thought I’d see anything quite like it ever again.

But with this season’s Red Wings team tripping over the blue line on a nightly basis, and losing every game seemingly 5-1, it prompts this old-timer to fire up the wayback machine.

So join me, won’t you, on this Magical Mystery Tour of the Ice Follies, Red Wings style.

‘A bad feeling’

Gary Bergman didn’t know much about his new coach. But in the summer of 1970, the Red Wings’ veteran defenseman got a sneak preview of the disaster that was about to befall the Red Wings under Ned Harkness, the college coach hired away from Cornell the previous spring.

“He came over to the house, introduced himself and everything was fine,” Bergman recalled years later.

But then Harkness started to talk about his hockey philosophy, and to illustrate, he began rearranging the furniture in Bergman’s living room.

“My chairs, sofa, the whole room, were used to depict players and positioning,” Bergman said. His wife walked in, saw her living room was a wreck, and shook her head. “I had a bad feeling,” Bergman, who was mystified, said.

Bergman’s bad feeling is justified. Harkness quickly loses the players with his college rules and approach. He fights with star center Garry Unger about the length of Unger’s hair. Almost half the team is traded and the other half wants to be traded. Owner Bruce Norris’ attempt to be progressive and bold with the Harkness hiring ends up being garish.

Total meltdown in Toronto

On Jan. 2, 1971, the Red Wings went into Maple Leaf Gardens and got thumped, 13-0. The Leafs scored seven goals in the third period. The Red Wings didn’t throw a bodycheck all night. The players were trying to get Harkness removed as coach. The Toronto ordeal followed a petition the players submitted to GM Sid Abel, requesting that Harkness get the ziggy.

It worked—sort of. Abel tried to fire Harkness but was told by Norris that he lacked that authority. Abel was pointed in his criticism of Harkness. “I don’t know how to evaluate him as a coach because I don’t think he is one,” Abel told the press.

Rebuffed in his attempt to fire Harkness and a loser in a power struggle with Red Wings executive Jim Bishop, whose background was in lacrosse, Abel resigned in protest about a week after the Toronto game. Harkness indeed was removed as coach—but only because Norris promoted him to GM. Former Red Wings defenseman Doug Barkley, whose playing career was cut short due to an eye injury, took over as coach. In Gordie Howe’s last season as a Red Wing, the team finishes 22-45-11.

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The 1970-71 Red Wings; the first team I remember following on a daily basis.

Coach Fats

It’s Nov. 7, 1973. Teddy Garvin, promoted from the Red Wings’ farm system, is the new coach, replacing the unjustly fired Johnny Wilson. The Red Wings, under the overwhelmed Garvin, are 2-8-1.

Harkness decides to fire Garvin and replace him with captain Alex Delvecchio. Fine.

But NHL rules don’t allow an active player to be coach, so Fats has to retire before accepting the coaching job. Which he does, but not in time before the Red Wings’ game against the Flyers at Olympia Stadium that night.

Can you say awkward? Norris asks Garvin to coach, after firing him.

Garvin is behind the bench, but after the second period he leaves the arena. Injured forward Tim Ecclestone finishes the game as “coach.”

Marcel Mar-no

It’s the spring of 1975. Dynamic center Marcel Dionne, a Red Wing since 1971, wishes to play out his option and flee Detroit, broken by the team’s dysfunction. Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke, who never met a star he didn’t like in any sport, woos Dionne with big money and the sun of Southern California.

Dionne signs but there’s the matter of compensation from the Kings. The league settles on aging defenseman Terry Harper and rugged forward Dan Maloney. The Red Wings get rooked.

To add insult to injury, Harper, a former Cup winner with the Canadiens, refuses to report to the Red Wings, citing their mystifying ways. But eventually Harper is coaxed into showing up, though he does so after training camp in 1975. Dionne flourishes in Los Angeles on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Anyone for tennis?

It’s the summer of 1976. Red Wings high-scoring right winger Mickey Redmond, shut down since January with a bad back, is spotted playing tennis in suburban Detroit. Photos of Mickey on the courts appear in the local papers. GM Alex Delvecchio isn’t happy. Redmond is mad at the media. The two former teammates stop talking to each other.

Redmond ends up being done as a player. He tries a comeback in 1979 but it lasts about a week in training camp.

Another Wilson tries his hand

It’s January 1977. The Red Wings are once again pulling up the rear in the NHL. Delvecchio, by now the GM as well as coach, tires of doing both jobs and resigns with the team 13-26-5. He does that Red Wings thing again of promoting a minor league coach—this time Johnny Wilson’s brother and fellow ex-Red Wing, Larry Wilson.

Wilson has a reputation of running grueling practices and vows to instill toughness. To say that the Red Wings didn’t respond to Wilson is a gross understatement. They cross the finish line under Wilson by going 3-29-4 in the season’s last 36 games, which is his career NHL coaching record.

Rogie!

It’s August 1978. The Red Wings enjoyed a sort of “resurgence” the previous season, under rookie GM Ted Lindsay’s leadership. They make the playoffs, win a series, then get blasted out by the powerhouse Canadiens in five games.

Lindsay, in an ill-advised move, signs 33-year-old goalie Rogie Vachon from the Kings as a restricted free agent. Worse, Lindsay submits a ridiculously lowball offer to the Kings as compensation. The Kings want young star center Dale McCourt. An arbitrator, who can only choose one offer or the other, has no choice but to award McCourt to the Kings.

McCourt fights the decision, taking the NHL to, um, court, costing the Red Wings gobs of money, along with league-wide embarrassment.

The Red Wings play with both McCourt and Vachon while the legalities play out, but it doesn’t help. Vachon is awful—a totally washed up goalie with dwindling confidence. On opening night against the Blues, Rogie surrenders six goals on 14 shots, which sets the tone for his two seasons as a Red Wing.

McCourt wins his case and stays in Detroit, with the Red Wings relaying Andre St. Laurent and two first round draft picks to Los Angeles. One of those draft picks ends up being defenseman Larry Murphy.

The Red Wings follow their Cinderella season with a 23-41-16 record, and there will be no playoffs for them again until 1984. Lindsay is stripped of his GM duties in 1980, coaches the team, and loses that job as well after a 3-14-3 record behind the bench.

The 1970s began as “Darkness with Harkness” and ended with the Red Wings in pretty much the same state of disarray in 1979. It was quite a ride. Kind of like a never ending freefall. Every time you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you were proven wrong.

After so much success between 1992-2015, I never thought I’d see truly bad Red Wings teams again—teams that could cause me to recollect the 1970s Dead Things.

I guess I was wrong.

The end of the coaching line for NHL's Prickly Pear?

Published Dec. 2, 2019

In a sport filled with lines of all sorts, it was one of the most legendary.

“You hate the guy for 364 days,” it goes (and I’m paraphrasing), “and on the 365th day, you lift the Stanley Cup.”

It was uttered by a former Montreal Canadiens player, speaking of iconic coach Scotty Bowman, who led Les Habitants to four straight Cups (among five overall in Montreal) between 1976-79. And Scotty, as the speaker above indicated, didn’t exactly make a lot of friends along the way, amidst all that winning.

Bowman left a trail of disgruntled, offended players in his wake, but a great deal of those dudes are also wearing multiple rings on their calloused fingers. I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that it was worth what Bowman put them through.

Scotty was a master of the good old-fashioned tactic of messing with your head, to hear his former players say it. And Bowman didn’t just pick on the third and fourth liners. In Detroit, no less than Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan could count themselves among Scotty’s victims of his cranial craft.

But Bowman won. A lot. Nine Stanley Cup-winning teams had Scotty Bowman as their coach, across three franchises.

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Today’s NHL not conducive to Babs’ style

But Bowman’s tactics might not play today. In fact, they probably wouldn’t. Just ask Mike Babcock. Actually, ask those who played for him. It won’t be a G-rated conversation, to warn you.

Babcock got the ziggy in Toronto a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs in the throes of a six-game losing streak and the players near revolt. It wasn’t supposed to end that way in Toronto, but with Babs, that’s the chance you take when you hire a man of his ilk.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a fact that most hockey fans in Toronto know more readily than their wedding anniversaries or their kids’ birthdays. And today, some four years and change after hiring Babcock, the Leafs are arguably no closer to sipping from hockey’s chalice than before they pulled a Brinks truck up to Babs’ house.

Leafs braintrust, led by, ironically, Shanahan, was drinking a cocktail of desperate and urgent (enabled by deep pockets) when they inked the free agent coach away from Detroit back in the summer of 2015. It wasn’t a bad move, really.

Babcock, at the time, was the hottest coaching commodity in the NHL, despite the Red Wings’ downward trend when the Leafs reached out. He had three Cup Finals under his belt, winning one and coming extremely close to winning another on two occasions, in Detroit and Anaheim. He won at the international level as well, being the only coach to capture gold medals at the World Junior Championships (1997), the World Championship (2004) and the Olympics (2010 and 2014).

His coaching success was clear and not to be argued. Now, as far as his methods…well, that’s where your non-G-rated conversations begin.

Alienating, shaming players

In Toronto, it came to light that Babcock’s treatment of rookie Mitch Marner in 2018 was beyond reprehensible. The coach asked Marner to record the slackers on the Leafs roster, but then Babcock went public with those identified, telling the so-called slackers that Marner was the source. Babcock subsequently apologized to Marner, but the damage had been done.

Babcock’s relationship with Leafs star Auston Matthews wasn’t warm and fuzzy, either, which makes Matthews the rule rather than the exception.

This column isn’t designed to post a laundry list of those who Babcock offended and how (just Google Mike Commodore/Mike Babcock for some fun). It’s to openly question whether Babs will ever coach again in the NHL.

The expansion Seattle franchise has been mentioned on the Interwebs as a possible destination for Babcock, whose hefty, eight-year contract was swallowed by the Leafs with four years remaining on it.

I suppose an expansion club could be interested in hiring a big name like Babcock, but does his toxicity extend so far that even a newbie team would stay away?

The pundits in Toronto who cover the Leafs (plus the fans, who have been through hell and high water with that franchise) have hinted that Babs’ style and strategies are outdated and no longer a winning recipe in today’s progressive NHL. That’s not even taking his prickly nature into account.

Mike Keenan, sort of a Scotty Bowman Lite, was the Billy Martin of the NHL—taking his act across damn near half the league, where at each stop it would inevitably flame out after a short shelf life, despite periods of genuine winning. Keenan’s poor relationship with players, especially the stars, finally caught up to him until finally no NHL team would give him the keys to their dressing room.

Not even winning the Cup in 1994 with the Rangers could keep Keenan in employ, as he resigned later that summer after a contract dispute with GM Neil Smith.

Mike Babcock doesn’t have to coach anymore. He is likely set financially at age 56. Maybe we’ll see him someday in a TV studio as kind of a Barry Melrose type.

But if Babcock wants to coach, it might not matter. Unlike Bowman and, to a degree Keenan before his act tired, teams might not be beating down Babs’ door as they would have in 2015. While Babcock did lift the Leafs a notch or two, his teams in Toronto went 0-3 in playoff series.

The NHL’s Prickly Pear may have pissed off his last player.