Clare Drake, hockey’s ‘John Wooden,’ goes into Hall of Fame
Each time Ken Hitchcock attended a coaches clinic for over two decades, Clare Drake was there, front and center.
Drake was a six-time national championship winner in Canadian college hockey, so he’d often draw a big audience for his presentations. But he’d also sit in and listen to others.
“The last time we attended clinics, which wasn’t that many years ago, together, he still was in the front row taking notes at age 78,” Hitchcock said. “Here’s this guy that should be sitting in the back row because you feel like he knows everything and he’s sitting in the darn front row taking notes and asking questions.”
Drake isn’t a household name to hockey fans, though his contributions mean he probably should be. Beyond his championships in 28 years at the University of Alberta, Drake influenced a generation of future NHL coaches, including Hitchcock, Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz, and will be honored for that Monday when he’s inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The notoriety of John Wooden, that’s basically what he’s been to hockey in Canada with that kind of integrity and that kind of leadership and that kind of impact,” Babcock said. “Because he was at a Canadian university without the notoriety, he didn’t receive as much (credit) as his life’s work probably should’ve.”
Poor health kept Drake, 89, from attending his induction ceremony or speaking for this story, other than a message through Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald that he was humbled by the honor. Throughout hockey, there are plenty of coaches eager to say the sport wouldn’t be where it’s at without Drake’s ideas, execution and willingness to share his secrets for the good of the industry.
“He shared everything he knew with you, and he used it all against you when he competed,” Hitchcock said. “You couldn’t find a guy that meant more to the game of hockey in Canada than Clare Drake.”
Drake did all that despite spending just part of one season as a professional head coach, in 1975-76 with the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association, two in the NHL as a Winnipeg Jets assistant from 1989-91 and then one playoff run assisting Hitchcock with the Dallas Stars in 2001. He’s the only coach to win football and hockey national titles in the same year and has 17 Western Canadian championships.
“They ran out of wall space inside the rink for all the banners that he’s collected over the years,” Trotz said.
Trotz, now in his fourth season coaching the Washington Capitals and 15th in the NHL, credited Drake for implementing the pressure and speed style 20 years ago that most teams use now. Hitchcock, who’s back with Dallas after winning a Cup there in 1999, called Drake “the originator of unbelievable pressure on the puck.”
Part of what made Drake so innovative is that he was willing to go far and wide to incorporate new concepts. Howie Draper, now the women’s coach at the University of Alberta, did his thesis on Drake and called him “literally a professor of hockey.”
“He was one of the coaches that was more likely to look to other sports and sports science and the European style of hockey,” Draper said. “He had opportunities to go over and scout Russians, as an example, and he had done a lot of international travel, so he was able to grab from all those various disciplines, I guess, and apply them to the game here at home.”
Drake was such a fountain of knowledge that professional coaches made it a point to learn from him at summer clinics.
“I’d be hard-pressed to name a coach that coached in Western Canada that wouldn’t have been influenced by him one way or the other,” longtime NHL assistant Perry Pearn said. “For the guys in the West, he was kind of the guru that you always wanted to go to in terms of being able to further yourself and grow your knowledge of the game.”
That list not only features Babcock — a Stanley Cup winner with Detroit in 2008 who now coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs — along with Hitchcock and Trotz, but others like Willie Desjardins, George Kingston, Dave King and the late Wayne Fleming. Desjardins recalls only figuring out how to stop a play the Alberta Bears ran by copying it and watching how Drake defended it.
“He made you better because if you weren’t prepared, you certainly weren’t going to have a chance to win,” said Desjardins, who now coach of the Canadian Olympic team.
Success in the little-appreciated Canadian college ranks didn’t give Drake a coaching tree. What did was his willingness to go against the grain in a profession full of what Hitchcock called “hoarders” that previously kept tricks of the trade under lock and key.
“He wasn’t afraid to share all he had with everybody,” Babcock said. “That’s because he embraced lifelong learning and was going to figure out a better way to do it anyway.”
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