When you think of Gordie Howe you probably also think of him in a Red Wings’ sweater. Most of the magic from his brilliant career was created in the red-and-white. But when his career as a Red Wing came to a close in 1971, when he retired from ice hockey for the first time, it came after a strange season that saw Howe switch positions, battle an injury, and take a mysterious “vacation.” All of this played out against the backdrop of a soap opera feud in the front office.
Ned Harkness is not remembered fondly in Detroit. There’s a reason his tenure with the Red Wings was known as “Darkness with Harkness.” During his reign as coach and then as general manager, the team floundered and failed to make the playoffs. Despite his “brilliant” hockey mind, the former college coach with great success in the NCAA was overmatched at the NHL level and almost every decision he made was a disaster. Detroit general manager Sid Abel, who did not choose to hire Harkness in the first place, was not a fan.
“Harkness is not a coach. He doesn’t know how to change lines or do the other things necessary to survive in this league,” Abel said about Harkness later. The decision to bring Harkness to Detroit was made by team owner Bruce Norris, a stubborn, impulsive millionaire from the Windy City who liked to think he had the brain to tinker with his hockey team.
One of the strangest ideas to spring from the mind of Harkness proved to be the catalyst to a controversial season for the Detroit hockey club. It was his idea to take Gordie Howe, the greatest scorer in NHL history, and make a defenseman out of him. Like most of Ned’s numbskull ideas in the pros, it was not well executed.
The 1970-71 season was the 25th of Gordie Howe’s career, a record. He had already scored more goals, recorded more assists and points, and delivered more elbows than any player in league history. With six league Most Valuable Player Awards, four Stanley Cup titles and eleven trips to the Finals, Howe had seemingly done everything there was to be done in the league. In his prime he was the best skater, best puck handler, most fit, strongest-legged, and best thinker on the ice. While he seemed to be getting a little long in the tooth and thinner on top, he was still a top player in the league. In 1968-69 he was ninth in the league in points.
But in the summer of 1970, as Harkness prepared for his first full season behind the bench for the Wings, he had the idea to use Howe’s superior skills on the blue line. He envisioned Gordie as a “rover” who could propel himself all over the ice and impact the game.
“Who is better with a puck than Gordie?” Harkness asked. “Who can move it up the ice better? Who can pass it better?”
Abel reluctantly approved the idea, but Howe had to be on board as well, of course. At first, Gordie wasn’t too keen on it, but Harkness explained that he wanted Howe to be aggressive and not ignore his natural scoring tendencies just because he was playing defense.
“When he explains what you can do, I get excited,” Howe told The Sporting News. “As for it hurting my scoring, [Ned] tells everyone who asks about it ‘Who won the scoring championship last year?’ ” The answer was Bobby Orr, a defenseman with the Boston Bruins.
Still, it seemed a curious experiment for a man making his debut as an NHL coach. But Harkness fancied himseld a genius and he loved to devise new strategies. But why mess with Gordie? Only two years earlier the line of Howe, Alex Delvecchio, and Frank Mahovlich had set an NHL record with 114 goals. So, even though Gordie was 42 years old entering the ’70-71 season, it seemed a bit risky to break up a talented trio who played with a coordinated intuition.
“I wouldn’t embarrass Gordie for all the world. If he feels it isn’t working out, we’ll drop it,” Harkness said on the eve of the season.
In the first three games of the year Howe looked like a veteran defender, scoring five points on two goals and three assists. He was also in action as Detroit’s man on the point in the power play. Harkness also used him on the penalty-killing team. The new coach admitted the usage was worrying him a little. When a few Wings on the offensive side were injured, Ned was forced to put Gordie back on a line as a right wing. Ironically, Gordie said he felt a little “out of it” in his first shifts back on offense. The season would only get more challenging for the Detroit veteran.
On November 22, 1970, in Philadelphia Howe fell on the point of Flyers’ defenseman Joe Watson’s skate and suffered a torn rib. Doctors said Gordie would probably miss 6-8 weeks, but remarkably, the 42-year old returned less than four weeks later on December 19 after missing just ten games. In his previous 24 seasons with Detroit, “Iron Man” Howe had missed only 42 games to injury. His ten games missed snapped a string of 252 games played without injury.
In January all hell broke loose. With Gordie still mending from the injury (he was wearing a corset under his uniform to ease the pain in his ribs), and the team record at 12-22-4, the players decided they’d had enough. Harkness was like a noose around their neck with his college antics, ridiculous rules, and shoddy game management. Every man on the roster signed a petition for the firing of Harkness and presented it to Howe, the unquestioned leader of the team. They wanted the message sent to Norris that they would not play for Harkness any longer. They asked Gordie to call the team owner at his home.
“We asked Gordie to make the call because he has had so many years with the team and he has always been very loyal,” one player revealed later when the story broke.
Norris was reportedly “shaken” by the phone call. He conferred with Abel, who advised him to fire Harkness. When Norris refused, Abel later admitted that he checked with the team lawyer to see if he could fire Abel. He could not, and that led Abel to step down. “I cannot agree with team policy nor work with this guy,” Abel said.
The next day Norris named Harkness the new GM and hired minor league coach Doug Barkley to be his new head man behind the bench. Reportedly, Harkness had initially been offered both jobs, but Norris changed his mind, feeling the responsibility would be too much for him.
A new uncertain era was beginning in Detroit. After three decades with the Wings as a player, coach, and executive, Abel was gone, replaced by a college hockey coach who had only 38 games under his belt in the NHL. The players had gotten Harkness out from behind the bench, but he’d still be hovering over them.
Harkness was never shy at sharing his opinion or doing whatever he thought was right. He quickly started to reshape the Detroit roster, eliminating players he saw as troublemakers and malcontents. A week after being named GM he traded Frank Mahovlich, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, to Montreal. With Mahovlich, the Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup that spring. Harkness shipped defenseman Larry Brown and center Bruce MacGregor to the Rangers on February 2. Four days later he dealt Garry Unger, the best young player on the team, to the St. Louis Blues for a few spare parts. The reason? Unger refused to cut his long hair. Harkness was sending a message: he was big man on campus, and any discontent among his roster would be met swiftly. The Detroit team was in disarray.
In late February the sad turned into the bizarre when Howe got into the mix. After a solid performance in a Detroit victory in Buffalo, Gordie emerged with a wrist injury. He was also apparently suffering from the flu. As a result, Barkley allowed his veteran to return to Detroit for a few days off, skipping the next road game. But when Gordie did not appear for the next home game, Detroit’s media pounced. They wrote that Howe was “mulling retirement” and one headline read “Howe’s Playing Days May Be Over.” When a reporter learned that Howe might be in Florida with his wife, they reported that Gordie was on “vacation.” Barkley, Harkness, and Norris were all questioned, but none of them were willing to speculate as to where or what Howe was doing. Even Lincoln Cavalieri, general manager of the Olympia, was cornered about it, saying “I know where [Gordie] is, but I won’t tell.” Cavalieri added to the confusion when he said, “Gordie has some thinking to do.” It was a hockey mystery.
While all this was going on, the player revolt was finally being revealed in full detail in the newspapers. Dramatically, Norris fought back, appearing on television to respond to criticism of his front office. He defended Harkness and his players, saying “morale was high.” He largely ignored Howe’s absence, spending much of his time blaming the media for the poor season. It was an embarrassing performance.
Gordie returned from Florida in early March and was back on the ice with his teammates, many of them unfamiliar faces since the Harkness roster purge. Number nine ended his 25th campaign with 52 points (23 goals and 29 assists) in 63 games. The Red Wings limped to a seventh place finish, missing the playoffs. Even though Howe’s contract ran through the next season, given his mid-season Florida “vacation:,” many speculated he would not come back for a 26th year. But in May and again in June, stories ran in The Sporting News claiming that Gordie had announced he’d be back for a 26th season. In June he said it before a crowd in Oshawa, Ontario, at an event attended by his wife Colleen, as well as all four of his children, including young Marty and Mark, both already pro players in their teens. Howe’s parents were also there to here the proclamation.
Then in late August when he normally would be gearing himself back up for another season, Howe had a change of heart, helped by the prospect of a new challenge. Norris offered him a job in the Red Wings’ front office once his career ended, a position as vice president of hockey operations, as well as VP of Olympia Stadium Co. and several other titles. “No hockey decision will be made without you,” Norris promised him. The lure of being a hockey executive appealed to Howe, and he also didn’t relish the idea of one more season playing with a sagging team.
On September 15, 1971, Gordie Howe appeared in front of more than 200 media members and hockey officials at Olympia Stadium and announced his retirement from professional hockey as a player. It seemed unreal. He’d played for so long in Detroit that it seemed like Howe was ice hockey. He’d helped take a Canadian game and make it appealing to Americans.
“This is obviously the single most dramatic loss sustained by a sport,” NHL president Clarence Campbell said.
Detroit News reporter Joe Falls, who had seen the man he called “The Babe Ruth of Hockey” skate his entire career as first a fan and then a newsman, wrote “I’ve always feared this moment when Howe would be through with hockey. The entire sport is weaker for it.”
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Next week in part two of his series on Gordie Howe, Dan Holmes will look at Howe’s return to professional hockey.