The 5 Worst Coaches in Detroit Red Wings History

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IMay 18, 2011

The 5 Worst Coaches in Detroit Red Wings History

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    Believe it or not, there was a time when the storied Detroit Red Wings franchise wasn't going to the playoffs every year and wasn't competing for the Stanley Cup every spring.

    The team just celebrated 20 straight appearances in the playoffs, which is a professional sports record, not just in hockey.

    But this geezer remembers, all too well, when the Red Wings were a league-wide joke and when they were nicknamed the "Dead Things."

    Coaching those bad Red Wings teams wasn't an easy deal, because the personnel was so bad. That said, I'm still plucking five bedraggled men whose tenures were pockmarked with bizarre behavior, silly disputes and above all, LOSING.

    Here are, without further ado, the 5 Worst Red Wings Coaches of All Time.

5. Larry Wilson (1977)

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    The Red Wings were floundering as the calendar turned to 1977, something that was becoming an annual event. GM Alex Delvecchio, after a couple of stints coaching the team himself, figured the players needed a hard-nosed disciplinarian.

    So Fats turned to minor league coach and former Red Wing Larry Wilson, brother of another former Red Wings player and coach, Johnny Wilson. Larry's other claim to fame was being the father of current NHL coach Ron Wilson.

    The Red Wings failed to respond to Larry Wilson's crack-the-whip ways, to say the least. They finished a 16-55-9 debacle of a season with a 3-29-4 stretch "run" under Wilson.

    Sadly, Larry Wilson dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging in 1979, at the young age of 48. At that time, Larry had returned to the organization as a coach in the minor league system.

4. Ted Lindsay (1980)

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    As a player, "Terrible" Ted Lindsay earned his nickname for his abrasive style on the ice. As a coach, Ted was "Terrible" because he was, well, terrible.

    Lindsay, a legendary Red Wings player, returned to the organization in 1977 as GM, and he found early success. "Aggressive Hockey is Back in Town" was the slogan, and Ted used a machete on the roster and hired a WHA coach, Bobby Kromm, to bring the team back from a 16-55-9 disaster season.

    Kromm guided the Red Wings to a 32-34-14 record, a playoff berth and a Game 2 upset of the Canadiens in Montreal in the second round. Kromm's 1977-78 Red Wings doubled the win total of the year previous, and Olympia Stadium was rocking, once again. The playoff appearance was the first for the Red Wings since 1970.

    But then Lindsay's Midas touch left him. It started with the ill-advised free-agent signing of goalie Rogie Vachon, who was 33 and finished when Lindsay inked him in August 1978.

    Kromm got fired in March 1980, and over the summer, Lindsay was stripped of his GM duties and demoted to coach.

    The 1980-81 Red Wings were also terrible, and they started the season 3-14-3 with Lindsay behind the bench, who was almost like a landlord forced to live in his own filth. Mercifully, Lindsay was fired as those Red Wings went on to a 19-43-18 record.

3. Harry Neale (1985)

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    In the summer of 1985, the Red Wings spent a lot of money on NHL and college free agents.

    They picked up veterans like Mike McEwen, Harold Snepsts and Warren Young, who was coming off a 40-goal season playing with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh. Then, from the college ranks, the Red Wings signed names like Ray Staszak, Tim Friday, Dale Krentz and Adam Oates.

    The moves even raised the eyebrows of Sports Illustrated, who ran a multi-page spread in their NHL preview on the Red Wings' spending spree.

    Coaching the team would be former Canucks and WHA coach Harry Neale---yes, THAT Harry Neale from "Hockey Night in Canada."

    Neale had coached the Canucks to a surprise berth in the 1982 Stanley Cup Finals, where they were drummed out in four games by the New York Islanders.

    The hope was that Neal's dry wit and experience could be the perfect fit for the Red Wings' blend of youth and veterans.


    Neale's club started ominously by blowing a 5-1 lead and settling for a 6-6 tie on opening night. Before Christmas, the sieve-like defense and horrible goaltending had given up 10 goals in a game on FOUR different occasions.

    Finally, Neale was fired on New Year's Eve, 1985, his team sitting at 8-23-4. He was replaced by former Red Wing Brad Park, who wasn't any better; the Red Wings finished 17-57-6 and surrendered over 400 goals.

    I'm giving the nod to Neale over Park because Harry started the once-promising season and turned it into horse manure.

2. Ted Garvin (1973)

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    The 1972-73 Red Wings were 37-29-12 and missed the playoffs by two points. Coach Johnny Wilson, a former Red Wing who for a long time held the NHL record for consecutive games played, had taken an awful team from 1971 and elevated them to playoff contender.

    Yet Wilson was fired by GM Ned Harkness, for reasons still unknown.

    Harkness turned to minor league coach Ted Garvin, who had coached many of the current Red Wings in their younger years.

    Garvin was a disaster.

    He didn't have the players' respect, and they played like it, stumbling out of the gate 2-8-1.

    Then something odd happened—one of the most bizarre nights in Red Wings history.

    The team decided to fire Garvin and make player Alex Delvecchio coach. Only, league rules said that an active player couldn't also be coach. So Delvecchio had to formally retire first. Trouble was, there was a game that night and Delvecchio didn't get his retirement papers filed on time.

    So the club asked Garvin to coach, even though he'd been fired!

    Garvin did, but after two periods in the November 7 game against the Flyers at Olympia Stadium, Garvin decided he'd had enough and quit, leaving the arena during intermission, if you can imagine such a thing.

    So player Tim Ecclestone (pictured above), who was injured, coached the team for the final period—which was ironic, because Delvecchio couldn't start the game as coach because he was still technically a player.

    Crazy, eh?

    Delvecchio finished the year as coach, and coached the team the next season, with the added title of GM.

1. Ned Harkness (1970-71)

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    Ned Harkness was a highly successful college coach, mainly at Cornell University, where his star goalie in 1970 was Ken Dryden, who helped the Big Red win the NCAA Championship.

    The Red Wings brain trust was led by an executive named Jim Bishop, who was a lacrosse guy, as was Harkness before he made his name in hockey. Bishop decided to make Ned the first NHL coach who made the jump from college, when Bishop hired Harkness in the summer of 1970.

    The 1969-70 Red Wings made the playoffs under coach/GM Sid Abel, but apparently Sid's long-standing relationship with the organization meant nothing, as Bishop badly wanted to hire Harkness.

    Harkness's rah-rah attitude rubbed the veteran Red Wings the wrong way, to say the least. Then, Ned got into a spat with star center Garry Unger about the length of Unger's hair.

    By Christmas, with the losses piling up and the team uninspired, Abel, who was still the GM, became concerned. It was clear that the players despised Harkness.

    A 13-0 blowout loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on January 2, 1971 was the last straw. Players signed a petition, stating they wouldn't play another game for Harkness, and gave it to Abel. In fact, during the second intermission of that 13-0 game, Unger recalled that Harkness sank to his knees and said to his players, "Why won't you play for me??"

    Abel was further incensed when Harkness was quoted as saying that things, basically, weren't his fault. Ned said the organization was "paying for the sins" of the past decade, a direct slam at Abel, who'd been coach and GM during those years.

    Abel wanted to fire Harkness, but Bishop and owner Bruce Norris sided with their college man, Harkness.

    Abel resigned in protest, and Harkness was promoted to GM. Minor league coach Doug Barkley replaced Harkness behind the bench.

    Defenseman Gary Bergman recalled years later that the moment he met Harkness, he knew the team was in trouble.

    "He showed up at my house that summer," Bergie said, "and he starts rearranging the furniture in my front room, using them as hockey players. He was trying to sell me on his hockey theories. My wife peeked in, saw the state of the room, and shook her head.

    "I knew we were in trouble."

    Boy, were they!