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Friday, September 19, 2008

Passing Of A True Legend

I'm going to take a pause from the needling of the establishment to say a few words about a man who many NHL fans might know from their history books about his days with the Detroit Red Wings as both a coach and general manager but had such a far reaching and deeper history in the college ranks that for those unfamiliar with college hockey (or lacrosse for that matter) or who never grew up in Upstate New York you may have never heard of him.

I'm talking about Ned Harkness who passed away today on his 89th birthday.

This is a bit more of a localized story, I understand that and what folks don't know about Coach Harkness or his history is a shame because his history and his story is rich with the kinds of things movies are made of.

Harkness' legacy in Upstate New York hockey that moved me to become the hockey fan that I am today, because without him and everything that he did not just for the RPI program but for Glens Falls, NY hockey as well.

Harkness' record with RPI speaks volumes for itself. He took over the coaching job at RPI in 1950 after then RPI President Livingston Houston wanted to revive the hockey program. After seeing what Harkness did with the lacrosse team, it seemed like a natural fit that he should take on the hockey team as well.

Did he ever.

In the 1953-1954 season, Harkness along with star players like Frank Chiarelli, put RPI on the national map by leading the Engineers to the National Championship. The teams they beat along the way?

University of Michigan and University of Minnesota.

Not too shabby.

His record at RPI from 1949 to 1963 was a modest 187-90-7 with the crowning glory season being 1954's National Championship team. In 1951, Harkness established the RPI Holiday Tournament which still continues today some 57 years later.

From there he moved on to Cornell University and his legacy was cemented leading the Big Red from 1963-1970 and winning the National Championship in 1967 with a little help from a goaltender named Ken Dryden and again in 1970.

Harkness' 1970 team was thoroughly incredible and dominant finishing the season 29-0-0. This would be Harkness' last year coaching in the NCAAs as he was hired by the Detroit Red Wings to be their coach. His days with the Red Wings would not be remembered well as long time fans in Detroit think of those days as "Darkness Under Harkness" as midway through his first season as coach of the Red Wings he was moved up to the General Manager's office where he stayed for three seasons and going through a number of head coaches as the Red Wings struggled.

It could be said that Harkness had the dubious distinction to try and follow in the shoes of beloved Red Wings legend Sid Abel, but the Red Wings during these days weren't the machine that they were through the 1950s and 1960s.

It was Harkness' ties to the Red Wings that brings him up to speed with my own interest in hockey. Growing up during the 1980s in Upstate New York and becoming a hockey fan at a young age marveling at the play of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux choices were limited as to what local action you could watch up close and personal.

Harkness, of course, got his start with RPI and RPI hockey for the longest time after his departure saw its share of ups and downs. When Mike Addessa coached the team in the 1980s, however, the team saw greatness on the ice like it had not seen since Harkness stood behind the bench for the Engineers in the 1950s. In 1985, RPI was lead by incredible talent, talent unlike what RPI had seen since Frank Chiarelli took the ice in Troy. RPI, instead, had future Hall of Famer Adam Oates centering their top line along with players like John Carter and George Servinis along with goaltender Daren Puppa - the Engineers won their second and final National Championship.

Nothing makes someone a fan more than a winning team does, and the RPI teams under Coach Addessa with Adam Oates were exactly that. That team lead me to become a hockey fan as well as an RPI fan and follower. Without Ned Harkness, there would be no RPI hockey in Troy. There would not have been a team to watch nor would there have been the all-world talent like Adam Oates for me to watch live and in person. I'd be a worse-off sports fan because of all that.

To that end, Harkness was also responsible for the establishment of the Adirondack Red Wings. Sure, his time working for the Detroit Red Wings was less-than memorable by Red Wings standards, but with Harkness being a Glens Falls resident, after being born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada his family moved to Glens Falls.

In 1979, the Detroit Red Wings main farm team in the AHL was established in Glens Falls where they remained until 1999. The first General Manager of that team was none other than Ned Harkness. From 1979 to 1982, Harkness was the GM for Detroit's farm team and in 1981, the Red Wings won the Calder Cup defeating the Maine Mariners four games to two, a championship that proved to be the final feather in the cap for Harkness as he helped put together the first championship team in his home town of Glens Falls.

The legacy of the Red Wings in Glens Falls is impressive given their 20-year stay in the small city. Four Calder Cups (80-81, 85-86, 88-89, 91-92) and numerous future NHL players and stars later, the Red Wings inspired many folks to become hockey fans. Even more amazing is that the 1985-1986 Red Wings team was also lead by Adam Oates as well. That RPI connection runs deep here and it all falls back on Harkness.

Sure, hockey isn't the popular sport fans like myself would like it to be and times have become tough for the local favorites in college and the minor league pros, but without Ned Harkness, hockey in upstate New York would not be what it is today and the world of college hockey would not even be close to being the same.

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