September 22, 2008

Harkness Brought Winning to Cornell

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The Cornell athletic community lost a legendary figure on Friday as Nevin D. “Ned” Harkness passed away on his 89th birthday. Harkness, who coached men’s ice hockey and men’s lacrosse at Cornell, RPI and Union, died in Rochester, N.Y., after several months of deteriorating health. He is best known as the first collegiate coach to win national championships in two different sports.
To those who knew him, Harkness was someone who stood and acted much greater than his 5-4, 140-pound stature. Yet to current students, Ned Harkness is either unknown or simply another name attached to a building or room on campus. Before reading further, those students who barely know the name Harkness must understand that his legacy, one stretching from RPI to Cornell to the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings is something much larger than can be expressed here.
A legend at RPI before even stepping foot on East Hill, Harkness’ legacy at Cornell is one of both winning (often) and of building traditions. Most incredibly, however, his is a legacy of perfection, as Harkness led the Cornell’s 1970 men’s hockey ice hockey team to an undefeated 29-0 season.
After WWII, during which he served with the Canadian Air Force and flew 39 successful bombardier missions over Europe, Harkness re-started RPI’s hockey program. For over 14 years behind the bench, Harkness compiled a 176-96-7 record, including three NCAA tournament berths and the 1954 National championship. In addition, while serving as RPI’s lacrosse coach, Harkness led the Engineers to 112 wins, the 1952 National championship, and was named the U.S. Lacrosse Coach of the Year in 1951.
By 1963, Harkness was searching for a better place to raise his family, and as luck would have it, Cornell needed a new hockey coach following the departure of Paul Patten. On March 13, Harkness took the reins and started the process of elevating Cornell to national prominence. Like most greats, he had his own particular way of going about business. Changes were immediately made to improve the facilities at Lynah Rink, opposing team’s banners were added to the rafters and the University began printing game programs. Harkness also instituted strict strength and conditioning regimens and challenged the assumption that Canadian-born skaters were always superior to their U.S. counterparts.
His first season behind the bench, delayed due to the assassination of President Kennedy, was perhaps his least memorable. In fact, the 12-10-1 record saw more than a third of all the losses Harkness would suffer at Cornell. Yet in 1966, his third year in Ithaca, he led the team to a 22-5 record and its first-ever berth in the ECAC tournament. The following year, with star Ken Dryden between the pipes, Harkness led Cornell to a 27-1-1 record and its first of two NCAA championships, defeating Boston University, 4-1. Two years later, Harkness’ squad lost to Denver in the 1969 National championship game. Four All-Americans, including Dryden, graduated. The losses only seemed to motivate Harkness further.
He guided his 1970 squad through a perfect regular season. With a 28-0 record on the line in the 1970 National championship game against Clarkson in Lake Placid, N.Y., Dan Lodboa scored three goals and 5-5 Brian Cropper recorded his 29th victory in goal, as Cornell hockey, led by Harkness, achieved perfection. To this day, the 1970 season stands as the only perfect season in modern NCAA hockey history.
Overall, Harkness led the Red to a record of 163-27-2, with five Ivy League titles, four ECAC Hockey League titles and the program’s only two national championships. Oh, by the way, Harkness also coached the men’s lacrosse team for the Red from 1966-1968, compiling a 35-1 overall record with two Ivy League titles.
Having reached the pinnacle of the college hockey world in 1970, Harkness left Cornell for bigger endeavors. A few days after the championship game, he signed on as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, becoming the first coach to make the jump from college to professional hockey. Harkness later became the Red Wings general manager, before returning to college hockey in 1975 as the first Division I head coach at Union College.
The profound impact that Harkness made on every player, team and institution he came in contact with is evidenced by the outpouring of grief from the hockey community at large. It is the type of impact that convinced Ken Dryden ’69 to take time out of his busy campaigning schedule through Alberta, Canada, to return my phone call on Friday evening. Although I was unable to record our conversation, I could feel the raw pain and emotion in Dryden’s voice as he recalled memories from his former mentor. Dryden, normally an eloquent speaker, clearly struggled to find the right words to describe his long-time coach. Paying homage to a man who cared so deeply for his players not only during their careers, but well after graduation, is a task that doesn’t come easy, even to a Stanley Cup champion and Canadian Member of Parliament.
In a press release Dick Bertrand, co-captain of 1969-70 national championship team and Harkness’ successor as Cornell head coach said, “He made such an impact on so many people, and he affected so many lives. … He always kept his feet on the ground, kept ours on the ground, and would do anything for you. To this day, I’ve not met anyone like him as a man, a father figure, as a model and as a coach.”
Indeed, even in death, Harkness will continue to impact the lives of many of us. The pep band plays at Lynah during games because Harkness was the first to encourage it, and the red and white banners hang above the ice because Harkness set out on a mission to lead Cornell to the top. Most importantly, those of us who live for the words, “Good evening hockey fans,” converge upon Lynah Rink because Ned Harkness handcrafted the glory days of Cornell hockey.
Many have made the case that Cornell hockey connects generations of fans in a unique way. If the team is that glue, then Harkness certainly did the pasting. Rest well, Coach Harkness, your program is in good hands.