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.

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.”

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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!

Bergman Was First to Get “Bad Feeling” About Ned Harkness

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.

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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.

40 Years Ago, the Red Wings Rendered the Weirdest Ziggy in Detroit Sports History

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Of all the ziggys that have zapped Detroit coaches over the years, perhaps no stranger exit was made than Teddy Garvin’s from the Red Wings.

It happened 40 years ago tomorrow.

Garvin was coaching the Red Wings’ top minor league team in Port Huron when he got the call to Detroit, following the unfair (my opinion) firing of Johnny Wilson in April, 1973. Wilson had taken over for Doug Barkley early in the 1971-72 season and between then and the end of the following season—when the Red Wings missed the playoffs by a whisker—Johnny had the boys playing some pretty good hockey.

Yet Wilson got the ziggy anyway.

I finally got my chance to voice my opinion to Wilson when I moderated a hockey roundtable that involved him in 2006 for the magazine I was working for at the time.

“I always thought you got screwed over in ’73,” I told Wilson.

He just smirked and said, “Darkness with Harkness.”

And that was the first time—and only time—I’d heard any member of the Red Wings organ-eye-ZAY-shun, past or present, refer to that Ned Harkness phrase first-hand.

So here comes Garvin and the team gets off to a miserable start. They’re 2-8-1 when GM Harkness decides to give Teddy the ziggy.

Harkness spoke to captain Alex Delvecchio, who was 41 years old and off to a bad start himself. Harkness asked Fats to take over the team as coach, for the game that night at home against Philadelphia. Delvecchio, who was mulling over retirement anyway, accepted.

Harkness then informed Garvin of his decision.

This is where it gets weird.

The NHL had a rule that prevented active players from serving as coach. Delvecchio hadn’t filed his retirement papers as the game against Philly was approaching, making Alex ineligible to coach the game that night.

Harkness asked Garvin to coach one more game, even though Teddy had already been fired!

So Garvin coaches the Red Wings for the first two periods against the Flyers, then decides that this is crazy, and walks out of Olympia Stadium, into the November night.

Forward Tim Ecclestone, who was injured and not in uniform, coached the third period of a 4-1 loss.

Yes, this really happened. You can read a newspaper account of the game here.

And for a fascinating parting shot from Garvin about the Red Wings under Bruce Norris’s ownership, click here. It refers to a discussed trade of Marcel Dionne to Montreal that I never knew about.