"Darkness with Harkness:" The Controversial Tenure of Detroit Red Wings' Ned Harkness

ParallelDesk 01:49:05 PM, 27 April 2023

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Ned Harkness is a name that still stirs up mixed emotions among Detroit Red Wings and Gordie Howe fans. His short-lived stint with the team from 1967 to 1973 was infamously known as "Darkness with Harkness," a phrase that has become synonymous with the failure and debacle that marked his tenure as both coach and general manager. Despite his successful record in college hockey, he was overmatched at the NHL level and almost every decision he made was a miss. In 1967, Harkness was brought in as coach of the Detroit Red Wings, a team that had been struggling for years. Harkness had a strong reputation for turning college teams into powerhouses, and many believed he could do the same for the Red Wings. However, despite making some initial changes that led to success, he quickly found himself in the hot seat. Harkness was a strict, old-school coach who was known for his authoritarian style, which rubbed many of the players the wrong way. He was known for publicly berating players and constantly criticizing them, which led to a dispirited locker room. In 1970, Harkness was fired as coach and replaced with Johnny Wilson, but the Red Wings' front office wasn't done with him yet. Just a week after his firing, he was hired as the general manager of the team, which was a shock to many who believed Harkness had been a failure as coach. Harkness immediately set about reshaping the team, trading away Frank Mahovlich, a future Hall of Famer, to the Montreal Canadiens, and then shipping off several other players. The team was in disarray, but Harkness was determined to make it his own. However, his bold moves did not pay off, and the team finished in seventh place that year, missing the playoffs. Despite the team's failure to make the playoffs during his tenure as GM, Harkness remained in the job for two more years. He made some good moves, including drafting a young Steve Yzerman, but the team never made the playoffs during his time as GM. Harkness's most controversial decision was turning Gordie Howe, a skilled forward, into a defenseman for the Red Wings in 1970. Initially hesitant about the move, Howe was convinced by Harkness to be aggressive and not ignore his scoring abilities while playing defense. Howe excelled in the first three games, scoring five points and playing on the power play and penalty-killing teams. However, management eventually had to move him back to his original position as a right-winger due to his lack of performance. The return to his position made Howe feel uncomfortable, and the rest of the season proved to be challenging for the Detroit veteran and his team. Harkness's authoritarian style and lack of success ultimately led to his firing in 1973, and he left the team with a reputation for being one of the worst coaches and GMs in the history of the Detroit Red Wings. While he may be remembered as a cautionary tale, his name continues to be associated with the team he tried, but failed, to lead to greatness.

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