Nevin D. “Ned” Harkness, a hockey and lacrosse coaching legend who changed the face of college and professional sports in the Capital Region, died Friday, on his birthday, at his Rochester home.
He was 89 and had been in failing health for some months.
Harkness took RPI hockey and lacrosse teams and Cornell University hockey teams to national championships before moving to the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League, where he coached and managed that team through 1974.
In the late 1970s, Harkness became general manager of the Glens Falls Civic Center and brought in the Adirondack Red Wings AHL hockey team. That team became the Capital Region’s most successful sports franchise for more than a decade.
From there, Harkness went north, bringing his genius for management and success to the then-new Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), running the sports venues developed for the 1980 Winter Games from 1982 through 1993.
His drive to succeed and disregard for obstacles in his way sometimes meant some bumps along the road of his remarkable career. After revitalizing Union College’s hockey program in Schenectady in 1975 and 1976, he resigned his position, citing “administrators and individuals who continue to harass … me and my hockey program.” Amid allegations of recruiting violations, Harkness had been suspended by Union in 1976 but then promptly reinstated by the Board of Trustees, which commended him in the process.
At the end of his long and successful tenure at ORDA, the state attorney general conducted a criminal investigation into the authority’s activities.
The criminal probe was dropped in 1996 because of a lack of evidence.
Harkness was accused in 1994 by the state inspector general of bilking the state out of thousands of dollars by charging some personal expenses to ORDA while he was in Florida.
Harkness, who resigned from his ORDA job in 1993, denied all accusations of malfeasance, according to an Associated Press story on Jan. 26, 1996. He was never prosecuted on any of the allegations.
Harkness is a member of seven sports halls of fame, including the RPI Athletics Hall of Fame, the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame, Lake Placid Hall of Fame, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Glens Falls Sports Hall of Fame.
Several sports venues at colleges where he coached have his name attached to them.
“He was an inspiration to me and to thousands of people who knew him,” said Douglas Burch, who worked as Harkness’ marketing and communications director for more than 20 years in both Glens Falls and Lake Placid.
Burch said Harkness, whom he last saw earlier this month, had an unsurpassed “can-do work ethic.”
“His impact was huge,” said Mike Kane, a former Adirondack Red Wings beat writer for The Daily Gazette and author of the book “Minor in Name Only: The History of the Adirondack Red Wings” (1994).
“He was always pushing the envelope, pushing the rules,” Kane said.
“Ned Harkness had a big impact on this [sports] market,” Kane said. “He made things happen. He was a builder of hockey teams, sports teams.”
Harkness developed the hockey program at RPI in Troy from scratch. Over the years his RPI hockey and lacrosse teams won national championships.
Then in 1963 he became coach of the Cornell University hockey team and built this team into a national powerhouse, winning NCAA championships in 1967 and 1970.
“Ned Harkness was a true legend,” RPI athletic director Jim Knowlton said in a statement. “The things he and his teams accomplished are nothing short of amazing. Most importantly, however, he was a leader who used innovative techniques to teach and inspire with passion and intensity.”
Dick Bertrand was a co-captain of Cornell’s undefeated national championship team. He took over as Big Red coach following Harkness’ departure to the Red Wings.
“To this day, I’ve not met anyone like him as a man, a father figure, as a model and as a coach,” Bertrand said in a statement issued by Cornell.
“I can say specifically after games where we lost or didn’t play very well, he’d give us a tongue lashing, but he’d never let us leave that locker room without feeling good about ourselves.
“That’s a God-given talent, and he was able to do it. He never forgot anyone, but we knew he was always there. He impacted our lives to the nth degree, maybe even more than our own parents, or more than any professor or boss or anything,” Bertrand said.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to get any time with him,” current RPI coach Seth Appert said.
“He really embraced me and my coming to this program, and I couldn’t be more appreciative of that. I was able to get, on four or five occasions, some good, private time with him. We were able to talk hockey and how you build a program.”
“The passion and competitiveness that he had in him, right down to the end, was great to be around,” Appert said.
Bob Fox, the goalie for the 1954 championship team, was stunned when he heard about Harkness’ passing.
“It’s sad,” Fox said. “I guess nobody goes on forever. Some people, you just expect to. Ned was certainly one of those people.”
Fox recalled that RPI, and, for that matter, Eastern college hockey, wasn’t respected by the teams out west when the 1954 Frozen Four took place at the Broadmoor Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When Minnesota routed Boston College, 14-1, in the first semifinal, many fans expected Michigan to roll over RPI.
But the Engineers stunned the three-time defending champion Wolverines, 6-4. RPI then beat Minnesota, 5-4, in overtime to win the championship.
“People were saying, ‘I’ll give you RPI and eight [goals],’ ” Fox said.
“Those were the odds the people were talking about, and Ned says, ‘We can do it. Just relax, go out there and have at it.’ And we did.”
Forward Frank Chiarelli, the Engineers’ second-leading scorer in 1953-54 with 35 goals and 27 assists, said Harkness was one of a kind.
“He had such a high profile, and justifiably so,” Chiarelli said. “He was a great, great coach. I think he’ll be missed very much by a lot of people.
“When you examine his record, he was a huge success every place he coached. He started the RPI hockey program, and he was successful with our group [and] the succeeding groups that came in.”