Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Drake

No, this isn't a Seinfeld episode. Having spent some time with my friend and broadcast partner TJ, I began to develop a real appreciation for legendary CIS/U SPORTS coach Clare Drake. TJ used to joke that Clare Drake helped the University of Alberta Golden Bears to 120-or-so championships in men's hockey, but it's hard to deny his phenomenal record and incredible mind when it came to the game. Hockey lost an amazing man today whose passion for the amateur game may go unequaled when it was announced that legendary coach Clare Drake passed away at the age of 89.

Clare James Drake was born on October 9, 1928 in Yorkton, Saskatchewan as the only child to Clarence and Grace Drake. He played hockey in Regina and Medicine Hat before enrolling at the University of British Columbia where he played for the UBC Thunderbirds men's hockey program before graduating in 1951 with his Bachelor of Physical Education Degree.

While he didn't possess a teaching degree, Clare's work with his former high school's football team in Yorkton, Saskatchewan prompted the high school to add Clare to the join the faculty after they were impressed with his abilities and work ethic. Through his passion for teaching at the high school, Clare formally enrolled at the University of Alberta in 1953 where he sought his teaching degree while playing hockey for the Golden Bears.

In 1954, he graduated with his Education Degree, ready to teach young minds, but decided to jump an opportunity to play and coach professional hockey in Düsseldorf, Germany. He, his wife Dolly, and his daughters Debbie and Jami spent a season in Düsseldorf before Clare went back to teaching as the physical education department head at the newly-built Strathcona Composite High School in Edmonton in 1955. He would spend three years at Strathcona Composite High School where he plied and mastered his trade while also assisting the Alberta Golden Bears men's hockey team under head coach Dr. Don Smith. In 1958, following the retirement of Dr. Smith, this is where the legend of Clare Drake began as he took over as the head coach of the Golden Bears.

As much as TJ joked about Clare Drake leading the Golden Bears to 120-or-so championships, there literally is no one who had as much success at the Canadian Intercollegiate Sports level as Clare Drake did. In his 28 years as the head coach of the Golden Bears, he led the team to 17 conference championships and six national championships. He served as an assistant coach for the Golden Bears football team during the 1960s except for three years where he was the head coach. In 1967, the Golden Bears football team won the national football championship, making Clare Drake the only person in history to win a national hockey and football championship in the same year.

The above paragraph is only scratching the surface of his amazing career. Drake was one of the early adopters of coaches helping coaches, sharing his strategies and ideas with other coaches at all levels of hockey as his impressive win totals grew at the university level. This, in turn, helped Hockey Canada establish Canada's National Coaching Certification Program, of which Drake was a part, which is a key training tool for coaches and sports educators in Canada.

Drake stepped away from the Golden Bears after being named the 1975 CIAU Hockey Coach of the Year to toss his name into the professional hockey ring in 1975-76 when he took over the head coaching duties for the WHA's Edmonton Oilers. Led by 39 year old Norm Ullman, the Oilers didn't possess much talent on their roster outside of Ullman, Ed "Rusty" Patenaude, and Tim Sheehy who scored a combined 107 goals that season, some 31% of the Oilers' total offensive output that year. While Dave Dryden tried his best to keep the Oilers in games, Oilers owner Bill Hunter wanted better results and opted to fire Drake 48 games into the season with the Oilers sitting at an 18-28-2 record and in fourth-place in the WHA Canadian Division.

Drake went back to the University of Alberta and continued to rack up wins with the Golden Bears. In 1980, he was named as the head coach for the Canadian Olympic team that competed in the Lake Placid Winter Olympiad. Canada had a few soon-to-be-recognizable names as Glenn Anderson Randy Gregg, Paul MacLean, and Tim Watters all suited up under Drake, but it would be a stumble at the hands of Finland on February 16, 1980 that would force Canada out of the medal round. Canada would end up in sixth-place at the Lake Placid Olympics as the US, behind Herb Brooks and the "Miracle on Ice", captured the gold medal.

After his Olympic experience, Drake went back to the classroom as a student, enrolling at the University of Washington where he earned his Master of Science Degree after two years of study. He began classes at the University of Oregon for his Doctor of Education Degree, but Hockey Canada offered him an intriguing position in the fall of 1983 that interrupted his studies: head coach for the first-ever Canadian Spengler Cup team!

That team, which started as an experiment, came together quickly under Drake, and they shocked the tournament organizers by defeating Czech Extraliga champions HC Dukla Jihlava in the gold medal final to start Canada's dominance at this tournament. As it stands, the Canadian "experiment" would come to be a annual standard in Davos, Switzerland as Canada, playing since 1984's tournament, has captured 15 gold medals while claiming silver on eight other occasions.

Drake would return to the head coaching duties of the Alberta Golden Bears in 1985 where he simply continued to win as a CWUAA head coach. When he finally called it a career in terms of his Canadian university coaching career in 1989, Drake had amassed 697 wins, 296 losses and 37 ties - an unfathomable .695 winning percentage in 1030 career games! He also captured his second CIAU Hockey Coach of the Year Award in 1988, and was named to the University of Alberta Sports Wall of Fame in 1987. And just for good measure, Drake added being named to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 as well!

So you're thinking he must be done there, right? Nope. Rather than just sit back and enjoy retirement after an amazing career, Drake moved west to Winnipeg where he joined the Winnipeg Jets as an assistant coach for two seasons! In his first season coaching under Bob Murdoch, Murdoch was named as the 1989-90 Jack Adams Award winner after the Jets improved from 64 points in '88-89 to 85 points under Murdoch, Drake, and Alpo Suhonen. Winnipeg, unfortunately, fell in the opening round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, but Drake's coaching style was seen in the aggressive way Winnipeg pressured opponents that season.

1990 also saw Drake's name elevated to new heights as the University of Alberta decided to honour the coaching legend by renaming Varsity Arena as Clare Drake Arena for all he had accomplished at the university. Without doubt, Clare Drake Arena is still one of the toughest arena for road teams to earn a win in, and credit goes to the current iterations of the Golden Bears and Pandas who stand tall at home.

1990-91 saw the Jets take a step back under Murdoch, Drake, and new assistant coach Terry Simpson as they finished the season out of the playoffs following the trade that saw Dale Hawerchuk traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Phil Housley. Drake would leave the Jets following that season, but he remained in the NHL as a consultant for a few NHL teams looking for new ideas including the Dallas Stars in 1990 with Ken Hitchcock behind the bench.

While his time with NHL teams was short-lived, he returned to Hockey Canada's fold as Drake was invited as a mentor with the Canadian Women's National Hockey team in 1995 after the IOC announced in 1992 that women's hockey would begin play as an Olympic-medal sport at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. His work helped Canada earn a silver medal at the 1998 Olympic Games, and he would finally step away from the game following his work with the women.

What other accolades haven't I mentioned? Let's run through a few:
  • Honourary Doctor of Law Degree - University of Alberta
  • Distinguished Alumni Award - University of Alberta
  • Order of Hockey in Canada
  • Geoff Gowan Award for career achievement - Coaching Association of Canada
  • University of Alberta Hall of Fame member
  • UBC Hall of Fame member
  • Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame member
  • Alberta Sports Hall of Fame member
  • Honourary Life Member - Alberta Football Coaches Association
  • Alberta Centennial Medal winner
  • 3M Gordon Juckes Award - Hockey Canada
  • Alberta Order of Excellence
  • 2013 inductee to the Order of Canada
  • 2017 inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame (Builder)
  • Clare Drake Award for the U SPORTS men's hockey Rookie of the Year
After all that, Clare Drake was always quick to credit his assistant coaches for his success, but there is no doubt that the man was instrumental in Canadian hockey at a number of levels. If there truly are "hockey gods" that watch over the game, they added an extra seat at that table today with the loss of Clare Drake.

Rest in peace, Mr. Drake. You will live on in spirit thanks to the major influence you had on how hockey is played, the people you coached and inspired, and the thousands of people who have adopted your teachings.

Until next time, raise your sticks high in honour of Clare Drake!

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