If you ask any coach from Canada West what their reaction was to learning of Clare Drake’s inclusion in the 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame Class, the response will be unanimous:
It’s about time.
If there was a bible for university hockey, you can bet a few of the chapters would be all about Clare Drake. His six national titles with the Alberta Golden Bears, 697 career wins, and 17 conference titles—including a national title with Alberta’s football team—make Drake one of the most decorated coaches the university game has ever seen. But for all those accolades, there’s more to picture that makes Drake so respected and revered by his peers. Many will talk to you about the impact Drake had, not just during his time with the University of Alberta, but on the way the game is played and coached. These are the stories of those who know him, and how their experiences with him have stuck with them to this very day.
In 1988, Serge Lajoie was a first year defenceman for the University of Alberta Golden Bears, fresh out of the AJHL. Standing behind him on the Golden Bears bench that season was Drake, who was in what would be his final season as head coach of the Alberta Golden Bears. Now, 29 years later, Lajoie occupies the same position Drake held for nearly three decades. But even though so much time has passed since Lajoie’s one and only season under Drake, the memories remain crystal clear.
“What I remember vividly from my experience playing for Coach Drake are the one-liners”, says Lajoie. “[Drake] would bring them out every so often to get us refocused. He painted the picture of back-checking as a barn being on fire and you’re the only one with the bucket of water to put it out. Or he would say, ‘Don’t worry about the referees. They’ll figure out soon enough that they’re incompetent'”.
After Lajoie’s one year under Drake, he would play another four years at the University of Alberta, under another illustrious coach by the name of Billy Moores.
“I feel I learned a lot about what Golden Bear hockey was through Bill Moores, but Clare Drake’s influence permeated through Moores in the four years that I played under Bill”, adds Lajoie.
Serge would move on from Alberta to play professional hockey in Germany, but returned to the school as an assistant coach between 2005 and 2010, and has served as Alberta’s head coach since 2015. Being around the Golden Bears for so many years, has allowed Lajoie the opportunity to continue to stay in touch with Drake.
“I had the chance to still interact with Coach Drake on a semi-regular basis when I would come back from Germany, or when I started coaching”, Lajoie says. “He always seemed to be able to pull out of his archives. Whether it was special teams systems, guiding rules for five-on-five play, or face-offs. He was ultra prepared, and to be able to go through a library of that knowledge was just unbelievable”.
Although technically rivals within the battle of Alberta, Calgary Dinos head coach Mark Howell knows exactly what Lajoie is talking about. A former Golden Bears defenceman himself, Howell remembers one of his first encounters with Clare Drake in 1994.
“I came to work at Hockey Canada, and one of my first responsibilities was planning the ’94 International Coaches Conference”, remembers Howell. “We had coaches and presenters come from all over the world, and you’d have about 400 or 500 coaches, it was huge. We wanted a guest speaker for the opening ceremonies. So I went to Dave King and asked if he would be interested in doing this. He said, ‘No, no, no, it can’t be me. Go to Clare Drake’. So then I went to George Kingston and asked him, and George says, ‘No, there’s only one man you can go to. Clare Drake’. Tom Renney said the same thing and that he was the guy that was the mentor and leader of all of us. He was the guy that established the importance of giving back, the importance of educating, the importance of coach education, the importance of the NCCP manuals, and the importance of helping create those manuals. He was the father figure to all of us”.
Howell would eventually go out and get Drake to come in and operate as the emcee for the event. But there was something about what Drake did when he wasn’t speaking that sticks out for Howell.
“We’re sitting there just listening to the presentations, while he’s sitting there taking multiple notes. Like, pages and pages of notes when he wasn’t even coaching anymore. It just amazed me how thoughtful he was as a coach and a leader”.
For all the pages, books, and binders Drake compiled over years of coaching university hockey, he was willing to share it with all who would listen. Long-time Manitoba Bisons head coach Mike Sirant recalls the first time he was truly exposed to Drake’s wealth of knowledge.
“I was working as the hockey development coordinator for the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association (late 80’s), and had just starting my coaching career”, says Sirant. “In Manitoba, we hosted some excellent coach development clinics. We had invited Clare to come out and speak at one of these clinics, and there was no hesitation [to say yes]. He was very excited to come out and spend time with our coaches. We put on some great events back then, and those coaching clinics featured some of the leading coach educators in the game. We had Clare Drake, Dave King, Wayne Flemming, and Andy Murray. That was where I first met Clare. What impressed me so much about Clare was his passion for the game. He had amazing expertise, and he was very analytical and knew the finer details of the game. Coach Drake was very humble, and very sincere. He was genuinely interested in the coaches at these conferences, and was very generous with his time”.
In addition to Sirant, there were a number of other bright young coaches listening intently at those clinics in Manitoba too. Bob Lowes, Barry Trotz, and even Gardiner MacDougall were all beneficiaries of Drake’s influence during that time period.
As impressive and remarkable as Drake’s knowledge for the game was to Sirant, he has another experience with Drake that also stands out for another reason.
“I was coaching the Bisons and we were playing against Alberta in the 2009-10 conference finals”, recalls Sirant. “It was after the third and deciding game, we lost 4-2, and Alberta won the Canada West championship. It was long after the game. All the players had long left the dressing room. Myself and assistant coach Larry Bumstead were still sitting in the dressing room reflecting on the game, and there was a knock on the door. So I answered the door, and there was Clare Drake standing there. He had made a special effort to come over to see us and chat, and congratulated us on the season that we had. That meant the world to me, and it still does, that a coaching icon would take the time to come all the way across the rink to knock on our door and spend some time with us”.
To this day, coaches from around the country, including Saskatchewan Huskies coach Dave Adolph, still jump at the opportunity to have a word with Drake.
“Every year we would go to preseason games in Edmonton, and one of the [Alberta] alumni would come down and say Clare was up in the stands and wants to say hi. So you’d just sprint up there to see him”, says Adolph.
Adolph currently has the longest-serving tenure of any coach in university hockey at 28 consecutive seasons behind the bench of the Lethbridge Pronghorns and Saskatchewan Huskies. Dave was a student-athlete himself back in the day. From 1978-1983, he was an integral part of the Huskies hockey program, and was a part of the program’s only national championship. Much like all the other veterans of Canada West, Adolph remembers one of his first encounters with Drake very well.
“I was a third-year student-athlete, and we had an exhibition game planned against the U of A. Both Alberta and ourselves went to St. Paul, Alb. to lead a hockey school for the day, stayed over, and then played U of A the next afternoon. I had worked at a hockey school before, but I had never ever seen what I saw the day I watched Clare on the ice. I became a student of the game, and I learned that there was a whole different way to play the game when I saw Clare Drake and the Bears running the clinic. It was unbelievable”.
Many credit Drake as being years ahead of the evolution of the game of hockey, something which became apparent to Adolph at that clinic in 1980.
“Back in the day, hockey schools were just chasing the puck around. It wasn’t organized play. It was just skate the kids a little bit, get them tired so mom and dad would have tired kids at the end of the week. This one had a plan. Kids were getting better [at hockey], they were being taught skills like puck possession. Puck possession was something Drake knew about well before its time, he just had different terms for it. He had a plan, and everything was detailed so teams and kids got better”.
Anyone can tell you about how Drake was one of the most successful coaches in university hockey history by all the wins and the championships. After all, they become a staple of any coach’s legacy. But Howell recalls the time he truly found out what it all meant to Coach Drake.
“I remember asking him a question one time, ‘When you were at the U of A, you must’ve been pretty proud that you won all those championships and turned all those guys into pros’. And he says, ‘You know what, that’s not what it’s all about. For us it was about establishing a program and a way of life that we were gonna create future leaders in our communities”, reflects Howell. “It was Billy Moores that I played for in ’92, but Billy coached with Clare and was basically a carbon copy of him. Cory Cross and I counted how many people off of [the ’92 Golden Bears] were in leadership positions. Head coaches, leaders of a business, principles, teachers, and doctors. 19 of the 24 players ended up in a strong leadership position”.
So you want to know why Clare Drake is going to be a Hockey Hall of Famer? There’s your answer. Unquestionably, the wins and titles make Drake one of the most successful hockey minds to stand behind the bench. His eye and mind for the game were steps above the rest. But Drake’s influence on those he coached was so great, it extended far beyond the game of hockey. Drake not only managed to develop great hockey players to better his program, but he developed great people to better society.
The concept of developing leaders through hockey isn’t a novelty by any standards in today’s game. It’s become the ultimate goal for every university hockey program. But when Clare Drake was coaching the University of Alberta back in 1955, it was a totally different landscape. University hockey continues to evolve and produce more and more great leaders in society, and a large part of that can be traced back to his coaching and development techniques.
Putting the legacy and influence of Drake into words is extremely difficult; some might even say impossible. But Serge Lajoie manages to find a strong perspective on one of his greatest influences.
“I think there’s no better person in the hockey coaching world than Clare Drake in terms of sharing knowledge. He had such a positive impact on the coaching fraternity. We often talk about the impact he had on Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock, and Wayne Flemming. I think [his induction] is long overdue and I’m really excited for him”, he says.
In November of 2017, the Hockey Hall of Fame will finally open its doors to someone who’s legacy was built on university hockey in Canada. Although Drake will be inducted as an Alberta Golden Bear, there’s a part of every university hockey program that will enter the door of the hall alongside him.
On behalf of Canadian university hockey, thanks for everything Coach Drake, and congratulations on making into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It’s about time.