I think what made him a great coach was he was a great person and a great teacher. When it was announced that he was going to the Hockey Hall of Fame, it was a great day for all of us.
Ken Hitchcock, Dave King and others explain why Clare Drake is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame
Legendary coaches’ coach had impact that changed hockey and lives for the better.
By MICHAEL BROWN
It was 30 years ago that Howie Draper first took the ice with Clare Drake’s famed University of Alberta Golden Bears, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“That first moment I stepped on the ice with the Golden Bears, you could see that it was a completely different level of intensity,” said Draper, who came to camp in 1985 after a junior campaign with the St. Albert Crusaders where he was named rookie of the year.
“I was a kid; going in I didn’t know what culture was, but in that moment I did—it was tangible. You knew you were entering an arena with people who were special, people who had been taught how to be on and off the ice.
“In that moment I said to myself, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
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How Hitch leaned on Drake to win a Stanley Cup
The name Clare Drake may seem unfamiliar to many, but if you played any organized hockey virtually anywhere in the world in the last 40 years, chances are the innovations and championship culture developed by Drake, known colloquially as “the Golden Bear way,” influenced how you play the game—and perhaps even how you live your life.
It is that pervasiveness that has finally landed the U of A’s “coaches’ coach,” now 89, in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the only career university coach to earn the honour.
Drake has a long list of accomplishments, but one that’s a little hard to find is his piece of a Stanley Cup win. You won’t find his name etched on the cup or otherwise written in any official manner, but Ken Hitchcock said that during his Stanley Cup runs with the great Dallas Stars teams of 1997–2001—including the 1998-99 champs—he “leaned on Clare hard.
“People didn’t know that he did a lot of work for me personally when I was with the Stars during my first go-round,” says Hitchcock. “If I was having trouble killing penalties or having trouble on the forecheck, I would ask Clare to take a look and he told me what was happening.”
Their fruitful relationship dated back to the early 1980s, when Hitchcock—still a fledgling minor hockey coach in Sherwood Park—would sit alone in the bleachers of the venerable Varsity (now Clare Drake) Arena, scribbling notes during Golden Bears’ practices.
“Why was he so successful? Why were his teams so successful? He seemed like a low-key guy, why did his teams play so hard?” said Hitchcock of Drake’s initial appeal. “I wondered why his teams played so well as a team and won so much.
“As a career coach, you’re fascinated by why certain coaches win.”
The hunt for that elusive and often fleeting ingredient that makes good teams great would send Hitchcock in search of U of A alumni for some first-hand insight into what it was like to be a Golden Bear under Drake.
“They would say he would create a sense of camaraderie, a feeling of when you entered the locker room you didn’t want to let the other guy down, because you didn’t want to let Clare down,” said Hitchcock. “He taught you how to be a good teammate, he enforced qualities of what it took to be a good teammate, and he did it in a very patient but determined manner.”
Drake’s status as a legend was already secured by the time he met Hitchcock or any number of minor hockey coaches who would approach him for advice. Drake’s reaction was always the same.
“Clare was very gracious,” said Hitchcock. “I felt like I really knew how Clare coached even though I never coached with him.”
“They were (consistently) too good . . . It had to be the coaching.”
Dave King, who coached Canada’s men’s hockey team to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics before stints as the bench boss of the Calgary Flames and the Columbus Blue Jackets, played at the University of Saskatchewan against Drake’s Golden Bears in the late ‘60s. But it was during an Olympic selection camp held at the U of A in 1979 that King first witnessed Drake’s genius up close.
“His attention to detail was unbelievable,” he said. “He was never afraid to stop a drill and make a correction, and he wouldn’t let it go until it was done right.”
King remembers that mistakes seemed to bring out the best in Drake.
“He would give feedback in such a terrific way but never in the player’s face, always polite—and I think the guys respected that,” said King. “It was never a slight to the player; he was really a classy guy.”
And the results were always the same, said King, who opposed Drake for three seasons as head coach of his alma mater starting in 1981, guiding the Huskies to a national championship in 1983 before following in Drake’s footsteps and joining the national program.
“His teams were relentless,” said King. “Every player who came over the boards was the same—they were good, they could skate and they never stopped.”
He added, “They were too good and too repetitive (for it) to be a coincidence. It had to be the coaching.”
As far as tactics were concerned, contemporaries and disciples alike say Drake’s main innovation was an unyielding and up-tempo pursuit of the puck that previously didn't exist in the game.
“Alberta could forecheck the hell out of you and still leave you nothing,” said King. “And when his teams killed penalties, forget four guys on the ice, it was like they had six.”
And though there is little doubt Drake changed the game, King said it is the makeup of the coach behind the schemes that secured his place among the pantheon of hockey elite.
“I think what made him a great coach was he was a great person and a great teacher,” said King, who is back with the national program as an assistant coach. “Us coaches have a respect for certain coaches, but we love Clare Drake.
“When it was announced that he was going to the Hockey Hall of Fame, it was a great day for all of us.”
“You have to be your own person”
Among Drake’s legion of good friends and well-wishers, it would be hard to find someone happier for him than Billy Moores, who played a season for Drake in 1971-72 before joining his coaching staff in 1976.
“The biggest thing he taught me is you have to be your own person. His personality is different than mine, so I learned to honour my own personality as we went along, and he encouraged that,” said Moores. “You have to find your own way, your own personality—that’s the art of coaching. The science of coaching is knowing the systems and knowing how to teach, and I had a lot of experience from watching him.”
Clare Drake’s 10 attributes of a Golden Bear
Moores also learned that hard work, honesty and fairness form the quickest path to victory.
“At the top you would call it a meritocracy, where everything you got you merited. He wasn’t a yeller and screamer, he wouldn’t swear, but he was firm. Everybody knew exactly what he wanted. There was a healthy respect, but you also wanted to please him—like a father, I suppose.”
He added, “There was no give and take around work ethic, you had to outwork your opponent, that was part of his philosophy. He demanded that: if you worked hard you played; if you weren’t working hard you didn’t play.”
Moores, who took over as head coach during the 1979-80 season when Drake was seconded to the Canadian Olympic team, capped off a Golden Bears national championship three-peat. And when Drake left the Golden Bears to join the Winnipeg Jets in 1989, Moores was the natural successor. He would coach the team for five years, adding another championship before also leaving the U of A for what eventually became a lengthy tenure in the NHL. He was succeeded by a string of former Golden Bears—Rob Daum, Eric Thurston, Ian Herbers—who all were shaped by the Golden Bear way, the Clare Drake way, and guided their respective teams to seven national titles over 19 years.
Drake’s rare ability to leave each person who joined him on his steadfast quest for perfection in sport and life better for the experience, is substantiated by the sheer number of successful people he taught or coached.
A few years back, when Moores was with the Edmonton Oilers and Thurston was the Golden Bears head coach, the pair ran an informal drill-of-the-week club for junior-level and professional coaches in Western Canada. There were 25 coaches in total; all were former Golden Bears.
“That didn’t count all the former Golden Bears coaching at the elite level elsewhere and the countless numbers coaching in minor hockey here or abroad,” said Moores. “Clare makes you realize the potential of the game. I think when former players look back at what we did, they realized that’s how to teach the game, and this is how we can contribute.”
A humble leader
Howie Draper, the one-time wide-eyed Golden Bears hopeful turned team captain, also experienced Drake’s Midas touch. In his 20 years as the only coach the U of A Pandas hockey program has ever known, Draper has built a dynasty that includes eight national championships.
“Everything we do with the Pandas program, we ripped right out of the Golden Bears hockey culture,” he said. “I don’t think I do it as well as coach Drake, and we have a long way to go to have a similar type of impact, but I think the reason we have been as successful as we have been is because we adopted the Golden Bear hockey culture.”
Like Hitchcock, Draper was captivated by Drake’s leadership style, to the point that he made it his master’s thesis. Draper interviewed generations of former players who would have at one time or another form the Golden Bears leadership group.
His main finding was humility.
“Despite his experience and knowledge, coach Drake remained humble,” said Draper. “Part of his humility was he didn’t need to be centre stage. The coaches he brought in and his captains were empowered to help steer the ship and transfer knowledge.”
Draper said a lot of the leadership literature out there holds up the idea of a humble leader as the best way to draw out different strengths in people to help an organization achieve its goals.
“He had a humility in knowing he wanted to find out what everybody else had to offer. From there he built and reinforced strong values. Being good people first, sharing, being a good teammate and contributing to the whole.”
Draper talks of Drake’s innovations and how his mentor became one of the first coaches from the West to scout the Russians and then adopt their strategies, years before Draper was even born.
“Here’s a guy who had all of these innovations, and he was willing to share them in a time when that’s not what coaches did,” said Draper. “He was willing to share with everyone, even coaches who were in the same league as him, because he saw a higher purpose—that we were all in this together and we can make hockey great.”
Draper added that Drake was very much a professor, often bringing in articles to read that went beyond hockey.
“He was always talking about being a good person. He demanded that of us, he modelled it regularly, he brought in people that shared those values, and if you didn’t share those values you weren’t going to be there that long,” said Draper. “By the time you are in your fourth and fifth year, the expectation is you pass the values and belief system along.”
And though Drake is being honoured by the Hockey Hall of Fame, his is a coaching story first. After all, in 1967-68, Drake pulled off a two-sport miracle that will never be duplicated—coaching varsity teams to national championships in both hockey and football in the same academic year.
Dale Schulha, former director of athletics at the U of A who played Golden Bears football in Drake’s final year as football coach—the year after that fabled dual national championship run—remembers bringing Drake back to the university in 1991 to introduce a clean slate of volleyball hires to the Golden Bear way. The new hires in question are still coaching today: Terry Danyluk, who would go on to win seven national titles with the Golden Bears; and Laurie Eisler, the architect of seven national titles for the Pandas—including a string of six in a row starting in 1994.
“After Laurie Eisler became the U of A’s winningest coach in 2016, her comments went to Clare Drake and the kind of influence he had on her volleyball program—that shows his influence,” said Schulha. “It didn’t matter what sport, Clare always had that coaching philosophy.
“He is a great coach and a great man.”