The desk in Clare Drake’s University of Alberta office was always a mess. Term papers. Maybe a graduate thesis he was supervising. Power play diagram after penalty kill formation after six-on-five game plan, his notes for the next opponent or coaching clinic battled for space with tapes of games already played on that 1980s desktop.
He was above all a teacher, known by his players to this day as “Coach Drake.”
He vowed that he would never cease to learn, no matter how old or how much success he had, and so he constantly foraged for knowledge. It piled high and scattered wide in that office, producing a man who could solve your power play woes in a phone call. But when it came time to go home he often spent 15 minutes searching for the keys to his Volkswagen Westphalia van.
Ahead of his time in hockey and on the road, Drake discovered the advantages of the mini-van long before Chrysler “invented” them.
“Every little word I hear at (coaching) clinics now about how to coach the game, I start laughing. They’re all his words,” said Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. “He invented three parts of the game (power play, penalty-kill, pressure) that are structurally in every coach’s handbook today.”
Full disclosure: Drake was my first coach as a reporter. I became the sports editor of the University of Alberta newspaper — my first ever gig, at The Gateway — in September of 1985 when Drake had returned to the Golden Bears after some time with the Canadian Olympic program.
Had I known that every coach along the way wasn’t going to be another Clare Drake, I’d have paid closer attention. But two of the things I learned from Drake make me, I hope, a better person today.
“If everyone pushed their troubles into the middle of the table,” Drake used to say, “we’d all take our own troubles back.”
It was his way of allowing you to conclude for yourself that someone always has it worse than you do, not to feel sorry for yourself, without flat out telling you that.
And there was the phrase on the Golden Bears dressing room wall, borrowed from legendary UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden: “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
I thought every team I ever covered would operate under a similar credo.
Dr. David Otto was a rangy Bears centre from 1983-1988. Today he is an orthopedic surgeon, and the director of surgery at the Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic in Edmonton.
He catches himself living out some of those old Drake lessons 30 years later. We all do.
“When you look back on it, it’s interesting to see how he did that,” Otto said. “You really got a sense that he cared about what you were doing, and he wanted you to do it right. And you did have a sense you were letting him — and the team — down (if you took shortcuts). He wouldn’t say it to you directly, but you could sense it.
“He wanted it done a little better, and with a little more detail. And he wanted you to understand why it needed to be done that way, which probably came from the teacher in him.”
As the Hockey Hall of Fame gets ready this Monday to open its doors to the Yorkton, Saskatchewan-born Drake, the top coaches in the game today would all agree on one thing: How on earth did it take this long?
“Clare, I just compare him to John Wooden,” said Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “If he was in the U.S., and his notoriety in the game, that’s what he’d be.”
Babcock, whose coaching path took him through Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge, counts himself alongside so many others who coach across the West, as a Clare Drake disciple.
“Maybe (he) should lose that moniker quickly,” laughed Drake on a recent morning. “I don’t know if that is a good thing to be hanging around your neck.”
Drake is 89 years old now and in a wheelchair. Not as sharp as he once was, Drake’s sense of self-deprecation will be the last thing to go.
He will not travel to Toronto for the ceremony, where his grandson Mike Gabinet, the 36-year-old head hockey coach at University of Nebraska Omaha, will speak on his behalf. Across the hockey world hundreds of voices will do likewise.
Would Hitchcock have coached at all without the weekly sessions in Drake’s office, or that musty coach’s room inside Varsity Arena (now re-named Clare Drake Arena)?
“No,” Hitchcock says emphatically. “All I was, was a work, work, work coach… ‘Work harder!’ I had no structure. I had no discipline in the way I taught the technical part of the game.
“He taught me that you needed a plan. He spent years teaching it to me, and I mean, years. After games we’d be in that little coach’s office for an hour and a half and I’m sure he wanted to go home, but he didn’t.
“He’d spend extra time with me at clinics… I can’t say thanks enough.”
All of them — Babcock, Carolina coach Bill Peters, Washington coach Barry Trotz, ex-Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, former Olympic coach Dave King, George Kingston, the late Wayne Fleming — are Clare Drake disciples.
He’d invite them into the office before a game, give away as much information as they could cart off, then use that same intell to beat their team the next night by four goals. To this day the Golden Bears are annually a University Cup contender, the DNA of Drake’s 28 seasons, six national titles and 17 conference championships still in every facet of the program.
The Alberta Golden Bears play like a swarm of bees. Always have. A hard forecheck, an aggressive PK, and a power play that was notoriously effective under Drake and right-hand man Billy Moores.
“It felt like they had three extra guys on the ice, he made the game so fast. They were relentless,” said Trotz, going back to his days as coach of the U. of Manitoba Bisons. “There are a lot of banners in that rink. I remember going in there and they’d run out of wall space for them. I said, ‘C’mon, that’s a lot of winning.”
Drake’s biggest victories? Being married to his wonderful wife Dolly since 1952 — “We started early because we weren’t very good at it,” he laughs — and absolutely stocking the Alberta business and hockey communities with the most solid of men.
Engineers, bankers, doctors, lawyers — and most significantly, leaders.
“He’s a champion of men (who) made people better,” said Babcock.
What did Hitchcock learn from Drake?
“That coaching was a lot bigger than wins and losses. You had an obligation to teach and to create an environment that was safe for kids to work in,” he said. “We always thought hockey was just a competition, but he made it way bigger than that. He showed how important it was to build a team and how it impacted guys’ lives for years and years after they finished playing.
“Clare is getting the (HHOF) award for all the college coaches watching today.”
Otto is a doctor and father, coaching a women’s hockey team, the kind of stand-up person Drake’s Golden Bears literally pumped into the community for 28 years. Of course, few want any credit for their part in that.
“It’s truly amazing the environment he created, for so many people to develop those values and maintain them in their lives,” Otto said. “He picks the right people to start with, then cultivates that.
“It wasn’t about him at all. He just cared about his teams, his players. I really don’t think he enjoys all this attention at all. But all his players, we’re happier than he is.”