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.

Image result for detroit red wings 1970s
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.

Zetterberg was an elite captain, long after his team wasn’t

Published Sept. 15, 2018

It was March 23, 1974.

I was a 10-year-old attending my second-ever Red Wings game at the old red barn, Olympia Stadium. I don’t remember much about the evening except for two things.

One, was the buzz in the arena before the game. Right winger Mickey Redmond had scored a hat trick in his previous game, bringing him to 49 goals for the season. So naturally, the fans wondered if they would witness no. 50—making it two straight years that Redmond reached that milestone.

Two, was the celebrated goal itself.

The New York Rangers were in town. Redmond—I can’t remember which period it was—raced down his wing, a defenseman between he and goalie Ed Giacomin. Everyone in the building knew that Mickey was going to unleash his howitzer of a shot.

Sure enough, just as he hit the top of the face-off circle, Redmond cocked his weapon. The crowd built into a crescendo of sound.

BAM!!

The slapper beat Giacomin cleanly, and the stadium erupted.

Redmond was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, part of a January 1971 trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Habs. He was 23 years old at the time of the deal. Mickey was considered one of the Canadiens’ new generation of stars, but in order to get the veteran Mahovlich, Canadiens GM Sam Pollock included Redmond in a package that included Billy Collins and Guy Charron.

Redmond started pouring in goals almost as soon as donning the Winged Wheel. He netted 42, 52 and 51 in his first three full seasons in the Motor City.

Then his back popped.

With Redmond, it was ‘What could have been’

Mickey suited up for only 29 games in 1974-75 and 37 the following campaign. The back pain was nerve-related, and it caused numbness down his leg. If you think skating on ice is hard enough, try it when you can’t feel one of your legs.

Because of the leg numbness, Redmond couldn’t drive forward with his shot with nearly the same gusto as he could prior to the injury. Think of a pitcher who can’t feel the leg that he uses to push off the mound.

By January 1976, Redmond was done. Finished. At age 28.

In September 1979, Mickey thought he would give it another shot. He was 31, but felt he owed it to himself to try one last time. The numbness was gone. The back felt better. Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay approved Redmond to skate with mostly minor leaguers in Glens Falls, New York while the NHL training camps were going on.

Redmond lasted two days. The back pain returned. He told Lindsay he was going home.

Fortunately for Redmond, he was able to find another career.

There’s no telling how big of a star Mickey Redmond could have been as a Red Wing. He was handsome, possessed a whale of a shot and was entering into his prime when his back gave out. Sure, he played on bad teams in Detroit, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from filling the nets with pucks.

Z: his back died a slow death

Henrik Zetterberg’s back popped. Actually, it’s been a slow death. It’s not like he bent down to lace his skates and felt something amiss.

Where Mickey Redmond was finished at age 28, Zetterberg lasted a decade longer than that, pretty much. He announced his retirement the other day, his 38th birthday less than a month away.

The amazing thing about Zetterberg’s career ending is that it comes on the heels of four straight seasons of being durable. He had played all 82 games for the past three years, and 77 the year before that. But the last few years, especially, were excruciating. The back condition, which was diagnosed last week as being degenerative, forced Zetterberg out of practicing from January on, in 2018.

A captain who doesn’t practice? That was more than accepted by his teammates, who play for an organization that’s been renowned for respected captains.

Alex Delvecchio wore the C for 11 years (1962-73) and even in the shadows of Gordie Howe, “Fats” was the undisputed leader of the team.

Stevie Yzerman took over the C at age 21 and didn’t take it off until almost 20 years later. Few captains in the history of professional sports commanded the room like Yzerman.

Nick Lidstrom had a tough act to follow but he did it with quiet and grace for seven years. The Perfect Human, they called him. How do you not respect that?

Then there was Zetterberg—“Hank” to his charges in the dressing room.

By the time the C was sewn onto Hank’s sweater, the Red Wings had become a shadow of their former selves. Eventually, so did Hank.

Oh, he put up respectable numbers last season (11 G, 45 A) and he played every game, but Zetterberg was a step slower, his shot a little weaker and his dominance was quite diluted. He no longer was one of the best Swedes in the NHL, as he had been in the first half of his 15-year career in the league.

But no one on the Red Wings roster worked harder, no one gutted it out with more determination and no one felt the sting of missing the playoffs after 24 years more than Hank.

He vowed it would never happen on his watch as captain—the Red Wings missing the post-season. In a way, that attitude, which was prevalent throughout the organization, was more of a hindrance than a help to the long term future of the franchise. But I see where Zetterberg was coming from. To the rest of us, it wouldn’t seem to be a shameful thing to finally miss the playoffs, but not to a warrior like Hank.

Image result for zetterberg

Classy leadership in style of Stevie, Lidstrom

Every night after a game, as Lidstrom and Yzerman did before him with class and calm, Zetterberg stood before the hordes of media and answered all their “So what happened out there?” questions. Never did I see him snap, never did I see him complain or whine, especially when there was a lot to complain and whine about.

It’s been said that the Red Wings officially lost their collective mojo when Lidstrom retired in 2013—that they never recovered from that. I’m not sure. While they haven’t come close to replacing Nick—certainly not a criminal offense—the rest of the roster got old and decrepit around the same time. And the long foreseen but only recently instituted rebuild didn’t help matters by its tardiness.

Even the loss of Pavel Datsyuk a few years ago didn’t truly end an era of Red Wings hockey. It ended with the retirement of Zetterberg.

Hank wasn’t the last connection to the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup in 2008—that honor goes to defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who will be likely following Hank into the sunset after this season. But by hanging up his skates, Zetterberg has officially closed the door on an era of the fast and furious, “firewagon” brand of hockey in Detroit, which is what they used to call Mickey Redmond’s Canadiens style back in the day.

I remember on the night that the Red Wings retired Yzerman’s number 19—Jan. 2, 2007—I was sitting in a private suite, helping out Fox Sports Detroit on that evening’s broadcast. Ted Lindsay sat next to me. As we watched the action on the ice below, Teddy said simply, “It’s a young man’s game today.”

NHL players have been frequently known to skate deep into their 30s and even into their 40s. But it truly is a young man’s game, as every professional sport is. Only the premier, elite players are kept on NHL rosters at advanced ages.

Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t been an elite player in quite some time. His numbers gradually faded with each passing year. But he was an elite teammate and an elite captain.

“One of the greatest warriors I’ve ever been around,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said of Hank last spring.

“One of the greatest Red Wings to ever play for this organization,” GM Kenny Holland said on Thursday.

At least Zetterberg can retire knowing that he had nothing left to give. At his age, and having played so many games in recent years, there really shouldn’t be any “What could have been” feelings coursing through his body.

He wasn’t Mickey Redmond. He was what Mickey could have been.

Nice career, Hank. How Swede it was.

Bingo, Bango! Redmond owes Motor City stardom to Harkness

They’re going to honor Nick Lidstrom tonight at Joe Louis Arena, a nod to Nick’s being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame earlier this year.

A fine reason for celebration, and well-deserved, of course.

And up in the broadcast booth, one of the many who can be called the pride of Kirkland Lake, Ontario will help describe the moment.

Mickey Redmond will chime in as they fete Nick, and then proceed to call the game with Ken Daniels, complete with the requisite number of “Holy smokes” and maybe a “bingo bango” or two. But Mickey owes his three decades-long broadcast success and celebrity in Detroit to an unlikely source.

There are three words that make the old-time Red Wings fan shudder. Even the glory of four Stanley Cups won in the past 19 years can’t completely wash away the words’ stench, because of the bad memories they elicit.

Darkness with Harkness.

That trio of words represent the decade of the 1970s, when the Red Wings went off the rails because of one man’s incompetence and another man’s stubbornness.

In the summer of 1970, the Red Wings, showing some progressive thinking, went outside the box and hired a 47 year-old college coach, Ned Harkness, to take over for Sid Abel, who was going to focus his duties on being general manager, which Sid had been for the 1960s, coaching for most of the decade as well except for a brief stint by Bill Gadsby (whose tenure ended in controversy in 1969).

Harkness was wildly successful at Cornell University, but his college ways were like oil and water with the veteran NHL players on the Red Wings.

By early-January, the players revolted. Everything from the length of Garry Unger’s hair to how the team dressed on the road was monitored by Harkness, and the players hated it.

Abel was aghast. Harkness had been foistered on him by owner Bruce Norris, who was acting on the advice of another newbie—front office man Jim Bishop, whose primary experience had been in lacrosse.

Abel knew that Harkness had to go. The players knew it. The rest of the NHL knew it.

The low point came on January 2, 1971, when the Red Wings, in protest, laid down against the Toronto Maple Leafs to the tune of a 13-0 embarrassment on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Ned_Harkness2

Harkness, at his introductory press conference in the spring of 1970.

 

The Leafs scored seven times in the third period, and five times in the final ten minutes.

Abel went to Norris with Harkness’ walking papers. But Norris, siding with Bishop’s judgment, overruled Abel.

Abel, baffled, resigned in protest, temporarily ending ties with the organization after about 30 years as a player, coach and GM. Sid would return later in the decade in the broadcast booth.

With Abel gone, Norris promoted Harkness, with his 12-22-4 coaching record, to GM. Minor league coach and former Red Wing Doug Barkley was hired to be the new coach.

So what does this all have to do with Redmond?

Just a few days after being promoted to GM, Harkness made his first of many moves, trading scorer Frank Mahovlich to the Montreal Canadiens. Ironically, Abel had acquired The Big M from Toronto just three years earlier in one of the biggest blockbusters in league history. From Toronto, Abel got Mahovlich, 20 year-old Garry Unger and winger Pete Stemkowski. Going to the Leafs were Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.

That trade, in March of 1968, rocked the NHL.

The onRedmond Montreale that Harkness made on January 13, 1971 would reverberate as well—but not as planned.

For coming over to Detroit from Montreal was a 23 year-old right winger who had a knack of putting the biscuit in the basket—Mickey Redmond.

Harkness got Redmond, Bill Collins and Guy Charron from Montreal. All for Frank Mahovlich, who would help lead the Habs to the 1971 and 1973 Stanley Cups.

Redmond, of course, went on to score 50+ goals twice as a Red Wing and he became as much a part of the fabric of Detroit as General Motors.

So much of hockey history would have been rewritten if Bruce Norris had allowed Sib Abel to fire Ned Harkness.

The players would have been happy, and played like it. Abel likely wouldn’t have made the Mahovlich trade, nor would he have traded Unger, as Harkness did about a month later. And Abel probably wouldn’t have traded Bruce MacGregor, either—as Harkness did later in the season.

Abel probably would have taken over as coach for the remainder of the year and looked for a replacement in the summer of 1971.

The Red Wings probably wouldn’t have had such a miserable decade.

And Mickey Redmond would probably have never become a Red Wing, and thus would never have found his way behind the microphone in Detroit.

Bingo-bango!

Happy Birthday, Mick!

Mickey Redmond

Former Red Wing Mickey Redmond turns 66 today.

To that, the Winged Wheeler says, “Keep ‘er goin’!”

Redmond was the first Red Wing to score 50 goals in a season, and he did it twice in a row (1973 and ’74). I was in attendance when Mick did it in 1974, as he blasted a slap shot past New York Rangers ‘ Ed Giacomin on March 23. The Olympia Stadium crowd went nuts. It was a highlight in yet another down year for the Red Wings of the 1970s. I remember that Redmond scored a hat trick the game before, allowing me to see no. 50 in person.

But a bad back curtailed what could have been one of the greatest goal scoring careers in Red Wings history.

Redmond’s last game was in January 1976, and he was all of 28 years old. The back wouldn’t let him continue.

He tried a comeback in 1979, but after a few days of skating in training camp, the pain was too much and Redmond had to call it quits for good. His broadcasting career began just weeks later.

Ironically, it was Ned Harkness—the man who killed half a decade of Red Wings hockey—who brought Redmond to Detroit.

Frank Mahovlich, one of the many unhappy players in Detroit when Harkness was coach and then GM, was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens in a trade that netted the Red Wings Redmond, winger Bill Collins and center Guy Charron. The trade was made on January 13, 1971.

Redmond, just 23 at the time, was a player with a high ceiling who was simply squeezed out of Montreal because of too much talent up front. Canadiens GM Sam Pollock had admired Mahovlich from afar when the right winger played for Toronto and Detroit. That’s one reason why Pollock was willing to surrender three players for the Big M.

Redmond blossomed in Detroit, and if it hadn’t been for his chronic bad back, who knows how many goals he could have scored as a Red Wing. As it was, Redmond fired 177 pucks past enemy goalies in 317 games in Detroit.

The cruel part of Redmond’s back trouble was that, for the most part, he had been a very durable player. In his first three full seasons as a Red Wing, Redmond missed just two games. But the back issues started flaring up in the 1974-75 season ¬†and never went way. Redmond played in just 66 games over his final two seasons in the NHL.

But Redmond will be skating in next week’s alumni game leading up to the 2014 Winter Classic. He has done so many times for the Red Wings Alumni.

Bingo-bango!