It was a borrowed bit of philosophy that defined the acclaimed hockey coach Clare Drake oh so splendidly: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
The fabled UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden was the one who spoke those words, but in hockey it was the unassuming Mr. Drake who best proved their veracity.
Whether he was overseeing the University of Alberta Golden Bears or Canada’s Olympic hockey team or answering a call for help from an NHL franchise, Mr. Drake, who died in his sleep on May 13 at the age of 89, was committed to getting the best from his players so they could get the credit. Lots and lots of credit.
In Mr. Drake’s 28-year tenure at the U of A, the Bears won a Canadian university record 697 games, lost 296 and tied 37 times. They claimed 17 Canada West conference titles and six national championships. His teams were based on speed and paying attention to detail no matter who was in the lineup or what team the Bears were playing.
“The Golden Bears were just like Campbell’s soup,” said Dave King, who coached the rival University of Saskatchewan Huskies before joining Hockey Canada. “You opened up the can every night and they delivered the same theme; the same level of play.”
Dubbed “the John Wooden of hockey,” Mr. Drake was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this past November and regaled for his longevity and impact. He was also celebrated for his uniqueness. In the 1967-68 season, he accomplished something that may never be duplicated: He coached the football Golden Bears to a Vanier Cup national title, then coached the hockey team to the University Cup national championship. He unselfishly influenced a generation of coaches that included Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Barry Trotz of the Washington Capitals, who fulfilled their potential by mimicking Mr. Drake’s moves – from the uptempo skating game his players thrived on to the way they moved the puck out of their defensive zone.
He shared his knowledge with opposing coaches who tried to make the master’s ideas work as well for their teams.
“He was about making the game better,” said George Kingston, who played as a captain for Mr. Drake’s Bears only to end up as the head coach of the University of Calgary Dinos. “With all the younger coaches in the west back then, we had a wonderful think tank for our game – and Clare was our leader.”
Clare James Drake was born in Yorkton, Sask., on Oct. 9, 1928. He was the only child of Clarence and Grace Drake and attended the school where his father was the principal. Clare played in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, then enrolled at the University of British Columbia. He graduated in 1951, the same year he married his high-school girlfriend, Dolly Carlson, and the same year he signed on as an infielder with the Western Canadian Baseball League.
He later switched to hockey as a playing coach with Dusseldorf of West Germany. He chose to give up playing and returned to Edmonton to head the physical-education department at Strathcona Composite High School. From there, he became an assistant coach with the Golden Bears and was offered the head coach’s job when Don Smith retired in 1958.
As soon as he took command of the Bears, Mr. Drake began putting his personal stamp on the game and how it was played.
“He challenged the status quo on aggressive team play without the puck,” Ken Hitchcock told The Canadian Press. Mr. Hitchcock guided the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup victory in 1999 and recently retired from coaching. “He was the first coach I knew who brought the aggressive style and pressure defence into the game. Defencemen pinching. Aggressive penalty killing. He coached a game in which the opponent was constantly under harassment in all three zones.”
Mr. Drake was one of three coaches assigned to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, which marked Canada’s return to the Olympic hockey tournament. Canada had boycotted the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in the hopes of getting the International Ice Hockey Federation to allow professional players to compete at the Games.
By 1979, Canadian hockey officials, including Father David Bauer, an advocate for international hockey, had selected a team made up largely of university players with a number of NHL draft picks added to the mix, Glenn Anderson, Paul MacLean, Ken Berry, Tim Watters, Kevin Maxwell and Jim Nill. By the time the team made it to Lake Placid, N.Y., a hierarchy had been determined: Lorne Davis worked the game as an assistant coach, Tom Watt helped explain things as a TV commentator and Mr. Drake ran the players’ bench.
A long-distance goal from a Finnish defenceman who was simply trying to clear the puck sealed a 4-3 loss and put Canada’s medal chances in jeopardy. To stay in the hunt, the Canadian team had to beat the Soviet Union and almost did. But the 6-4 setback, followed by a five-goal loss to Czechoslovakia, relegated Canada to sixth place.
Having previously taken a break from the U of A to coach the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association in 1975-76, Mr. Drake spent the 1988-89 NHL season as an assistant with the Winnipeg Jets. From there, he was tabbed as a coaching consultant and advised where he could.
“He was a funny character, too,” Mr. King recalled. “I can remember in 1978 at an Olympic evaluation camp in Edmonton; people had told me he was quite forgetful. He had his keys on a [lanyard] around his neck so he wouldn’t lose them. But we get out the front door of the rink and he stops and goes, ‘Geez, where’s my car?’ He had no idea where he parked his car.”
When Mr. Drake finally stepped away from full-time coaching, the awards began flowing in. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the U of A. The school’s hockey rink was renamed Clare Drake Arena. He was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, was given the Alberta Order of Excellence and named to the Order of Hockey Canada as well as the Order of Canada. He may not have liked getting all that credit, but those who admired him were satisfied with the outcome, even though his failing health prevented him from travelling from Edmonton to Toronto for his Hockey Hall of Fame induction.
“Clare couldn’t have thanked all of us enough for that,” Mr. Kingston said. “But it was the least we could do for an absolute pioneer in the game.”
Mr. Drake leaves his wife, Dolly; and daughters, Debbie and Jami. Mr. Drake’s grandson Mike Gabinet is head coach of the University of Nebraska’s Omaha hockey team.