Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weight Requirements Trump Hair Concerns Any Day

Mike Williams' weight, I can understand. It helps to play football when you're not channeling Marlon Brando, post-"Godfather." I can even abide quirky things in contracts like not being allowed to bunjee-jump, or windsurf, or anything else that might compromise an athlete's career -- the one that management is paying millions to nurture.

But it was a haircut -- or lack thereof -- that ended a career in Detroit that could have been something special.

Garry Unger was a hotshot center for the Red Wings in the late 1960's. He could skate, score, check, and was very durable. The Wings had snatched him from the Toronto Maple Leafs, before King Clancy and company knew what they really had. In the 1969-70 season, Unger scored 42 goals -- as a 22 year-old. He had long, flowing blond locks, which made him a darling with the female fans, this being before the days when most players wore helmets.

Ahh, those locks.

In a move that is still questioned by oldtimers as being fueled by one too many cocktails, Red Wings owner Bruce Norris hired Ned Harkness to coach his hockey club. Harkness was fresh off the 1970 NCAA hockey title, coaching Cornell. Almost immediately, he bemused his new players.

"I remember the first time I met Ned," the late Gary Bergman, defenseman, once recalled. "It was in the summer, and I'm drinking coffee and here he comes, to my house. He started talking about hockey and how we were going to do things, and before you know it he's rearranging the furniture in my living room, representing hockey players.

"My wife poked her head in, took a look, and shook her head and left," Bergman said.

"I knew we were in trouble," Bergman said of Harkness.

And the Red Wings were. It didn't take long before Harkness had alienated just about every player on the roster, including Gordie Howe, who was in his final season as a Wing. It culminated in an ugly 13-0 loss in Toronto on January 2, 1971. The players had signed a petition begging management to fire Harkness.

GM Sid Abel tried to do exactly that.

But Abel was overruled by the stubborn, absentee owner Bruce Norris. Turning his back on the franchise near and dear to his heart, and completely frustrated and mystified, Abel resigned on January 8th.

And who was promoted to replace him?

Ned Harkness!

And Doug Barkley was promoted from the minors to coach the Red Wings.

Unger and his hair

But back to Unger. Harkness harped on his young center about the length of his hair. Get a haircut, get a haircut, Harkness said. No, no, Unger said. They were at an impasse.

Finally, in February, Harkness made his move, trading Unger and Wayne Connelly to the Blues for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone. It wasn't a terrible trade, but it wasn't good, either.

Unger ended up being the NHL's Iron Man, playing in over 600 consecutive games at one point. He finished his career with 413 goals, most with St. Louis.

But it didn't happen in Detroit. All because of a haircut.

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