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Clare Drake, teacher and mentor to a generation of coaches, passes away at 89

Legendary University of Alberta coach Clare Drake, who passed away this past weekend at 89, shared his secrets and helped bring up a generation of bench bosses, including some modern NHL greats.

A couple of times a week during the late 1970s, there would often be one solitary figure sitting in the stands at the University of Alberta hockey practices. The guy worked at a local sporting goods store and coached the AAA midget team in nearby Sherwood Park. Clare Drake was the head coach at the U of A at the time and would invite the observer to his office after practice where the two would talk and Drake would spill all his secrets about how to run a good practice.

That guy in the stands was Ken Hitchcock. He learned his lessons well. So well that at some point soon, he’ll almost certainly join Clare Drake in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hitchcock was just one of hundreds of coaches, some of whom have gone on to be some of the best bench bosses in the NHL, who were influenced and guided by Drake, who died this past weekend at the age of 89. Another is Barry Trotz, who is in the middle of the Eastern Conference final with the Washington Capitals. Another is Mike Babcock, who signed the richest coaching contract in NHL history with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Coaches are generally measured by wins and losses and by that measure, Drake is without peer in university hockey. In his 28 years coaching the Golden Bears, he won six national championships and 17 Canada West titles – along with a national football title for good measure – making Alberta the gold standard by which all other programs are measured. He had a .695 winning percentage with the Golden Bears and led teams to both Spengler Cup and World Student Games championships. But it was far more than winning that made Drake such a special coach. He was as much a student as he was a teacher. And in an era when coaches kept their tactics guarded as though they were state secrets, Drake was eager to spread the word to anyone who would listen.

There were brilliant coaches before Drake came along in the 1950s and after that, to be sure. But the difference between Drake and the others was that while those in the NHL wouldn’t dare share their secrets, Drake and others such as Tom Watt, George Kingston, Dave King and Bob Hindmarch bred a generation of coaches by doing exactly the opposite.

“Guys like Toe Blake and Rudy Pilous and Scotty Bowman, those guys were untouchables,” Hitchcock said. “The only way you ever learned from them was if you knew a player who played for them and he passed things on. But Clare and that group, they were the first to share everything and that’s what changed hockey forever. I remember Jacques Lemaire was a protégé of Toe and Scotty and when we had Jacques at the Olympics, you couldn’t get him to share anything because he wasn’t giving away any secrets. The only way you could get Jacques to share was to make sure you had enough beer in everybody and it would all come out and it was unbelievable what you could learn.”

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Drake’s attitude was more centered on the more you share, the more you learn. And being a coach in university, he relished the opportunity to have four or five days to prepare for a game. In an era when hockey was a blue-collar sport where coaches were more motivators and disciplinarians than teachers, Drake was years ahead of his time. You could say the pendulum has swung too far the other way and that the game is over-coached, which would be a valid point. And that’s one area where Drake had an enormous influence. Hitchcock said Drake was one of those coaches who enjoyed practices more than games and everything that was done in practice was done so with a purpose.

“The biggest impact was that he organized the coaching of the game of hockey,” Hitchcock said. “He brought organization to the way you taught the game. Clare and those guys were trailblazers in getting the message to minor hockey coaches into an area where you could organize your special teams and there was a plan to play defense and a plan to create offense. All of a sudden practice were organized and they had a design to them.”

His work with Hockey Canada and the national coaching certification program helped plant the seeds for the Program of Excellence that has resulted in Canada winning gold medals at every level of the sport. He’s a member of the Order of Canada – both the official Order of Canada and the Order of Hockey in Canada – and received the ultimate honor when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November. But that didn’t stop him from constantly wanting to learn, something Hitchcock often saw close-up.

“Clare was in his late 70s and he was still going to symposiums,” Hitchcock said. “Once you got through the nervousness of presenting with him there, it was awesome because he was sitting in the front row taking notes.”

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