VANCOUVER - St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was driving home from the rink on a “day off” -- you could almost hear the quote marks as he said it -- when he heard about Clare Drake’s induction into the Order of Hockey in Canada.
“Hopefully it’s a step into the big one,” were the first words out of his mouth.
And with due appreciation for the three-year-old Hockey Canada honour that recognizes extraordinary contributions to the game of hockey, an old scribe who first dealt with the legendary coach of the U of Alberta Golden Bears nearly 40 years ago had to admit that pretty well summed it up.
“The big one,” of course, is the Hockey Hall of Fame, which so far has not seen fit to admit one of the sport’s true visionaries to its hallowed Toronto home -- probably because Drake, despite a ridiculously successful career as a coach and innovator, went too quietly about his business, never needed to hear the sound of his own name, and was never cut out for the limelight of the professional game, though he coached it in a few places.
All he did, this 86-year-old absent-minded professor, was have a bigger influence over more hockey coaches than, arguably, anyone in the history of the game. That ought to be enough, but as Dave King noted Wednesday afternoon, “it seems like the NHL aura has to be there for (the Hall) to happen."
“I heard about it this morning on TSN, and I just jumped out of my chair and yelled, ‘Finally!’” said King, the career coach of national and international and NHL clubs, now the development coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. He was one of last year’s inductees into the Order, alongside Paul Henderson and Mark Messier.
“I’ve always believed Clare made the single biggest contribution in our sport to the development of coaching -- and you think about that,” King said. “When you affect coaching, you affect the top of the pyramid all the way down. He was so far ahead of his time.”
Wednesday at Rogers Arena, Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson announced that Drake, along with longtime national women’s team star (and 2014 Olympic assistant chef de mission) France St. Louis and two-time Olympic GM (and 2002 gold medalist) Steve Yzerman were the latest inductees into the Order, and would be officially feted on June 23-24 at the Hockey Foundation Celebrity Classic in Vancouver.
Hitchcock remains hopeful that the Hockey Hall of Fame honour also will be coming for Drake, but that NHL-heavy committee is a tough one to crack, even for someone whose name is known everywhere among coaches -- and whose endorsement for the Hall included testimonials from Hitchcock (“The man’s fingerprints are all over the game”), Mike Babcock (“I’m a head coach today because of Clare Drake ... I urge you to elect him to the Hall and give him the acclaim he’s never sought, but so richly deserves”), Tom Watt (“When Clare retired as the winningest college hockey coach ever, his picture should have been on the cover of Time magazine”) ... on and on down a long list of people blown away by his influence over the way the game has been played -- and is still played.
“It’s fine with me,” Drake said Wednesday. “I got something like 32 really wonderful letters from guys in the hockey world, and as (wife) Dolly said to me, those letters are just as good as any induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. They were so nicely done, and had a lot of feeling to them.”
Asked earlier on the conference call what he was most proud of in his career, Drake said it was consistency, “and that’s a tribute to the players and assistant coaches that worked with me. I felt I just hooked on for the ride, really.”
And that’s Clare Drake. Told that Hitchcock and King, in particular, had spoken glowingly of him, he said, “all those guys are very generous to me. We were kind of lucky I think to grow up together as coaches in Canada West, with (Calgary’s) George Kingston and (Saskatchewan’s) Dave King, Barry Trotz in Manitoba ... and we had a good sharing culture.”
Drake did most of the sharing, said King.
“He changed the game more than any other coach has changed the game, and I don’t care what level you’re talking about,” he said. “The rink was a laboratory, and he came up with all these amazing ideas, all these visions -- and THEN, he’d go to coaching clinics and just give it to you. I think he knew he taught it better than anyone else.”
“You can go all over the world, China, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and just go ask about Clare Drake,” said Hitchcock. “And anybody who’s a coach who’s over 40 years of age will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what seminar they were at, what he taught.
“He put pressure forecheck into the PK, pressure in the zone, he was the guy who introduced how to teach that: lanes and stick positioning and angles, which 90% of the NHL teams use today. His influence is as big or bigger than any instructor has ever had in our sport.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of coaches, and they’ve said that at the start of a season, and I do the same thing, I always look at Clare Drake’s penalty killing and Clare Drake’s forechecking stuff. Some people call it thievery, we call it research,” said King, who wished more people were aware of “our game’s greatest secret.”
Hitchcock remembers when he worked at a cycle shop in Edmonton, coaching midget teams, mesmerized by how Drake’s Golden Bears played the game, and evenings spent listening to him and his longtime assistant and successor, Billy Moores, talk hockey.
“And then it kind of came full circle, because when I went to Dallas, I asked Clare to evaluate our penalty killing, in 1997 or ’98, and tell me what we needed to do better so that we could put more heat on people, more pressure. And all the things that he taught me, I still use today.”
Hitchcock’s Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
“I think anybody that knows Clare as well as a lot of us who have been so influenced by him, it’s a very emotional response we have, Barry and Babs and Todd McLellan and all of us,” Hitchcock said. “He’s been so generous and helpful with all of us in our careers. He organized us all.
“So I think we are really proud of Clare, but we also feel there’s something missing. When you have the worldwide influence that he has had, if this is a true Hockey Hall of Fame, that’s the next step that people have to think about for Clare.”
Everybody has Clare Drake stories about his messy office, his forgetfulness -- where he parked his car, where he left his keys -- “but listening to him at coaching clinics,” King said, “you realized he was not only a great coaching mind, he was just a great man.”
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