You might think that more than a score of years spent coaching in the high-pressure world of national and international sports competition would inure a person to the nervousness that might be expected of others.
But Clare Drake confesses to an uneasiness as the evening of last April 6 approached. "I was somewhat apprehensive before;" he says, "and that night I was surprised I was as nervous as I was."
The long-time coach at the University of Alberta can be forgiven his anxiety, though, for that night he was about to become the victim of that curious means of honoring a fellow which has become so popular in recent years: the Roast.
Tuesday April 6 was the night of "The Duck Roast." Sponsored by the department of athletic services, it was the brainchild of the department's special projects co-ordinator, John Barry. In announcing the $50-perplate event Barry stated that "after 25 years, we felt it was time to take a few shots at our esteemed colleague." Drake has been associated with the University, now preparing to celebrate its 75th Anniversary, for a third of its existence.
Further, the Roast was designed to create better public awareness of the University's athletic program and to aid in the department's commitment to excellence, which has led them into fund raising.
As it turned out, the Coach needn't have worried. The evening turned out to be as much a reunion as a roast. "It was good fun," was his reaction afterwards. "There were a lot of funny stories, and it was nostalgic."
A number of people he hadn't seen in a long time, many of them former players, were in attendance. At the end of the evening Coach Drake and his wife were presented with tickets for two to any Air Canada destination.
Following the Roast, Clare Drake talked about his coaching career. "I've been very fortunate to have been able to do something that I enjoy so much," he said. And he spoke highly of his Faculty and colleagues."The atmosphere here is really positive; there are some great staff members."
Coach Drake has coached the Golden Bear hockey team for a total of 22 years. During the course of those years, the team has won a total of 14 conference championships and appeared in 10 national playoff rounds, winning five national titles and on two other occasions surviving until the final game. In 1980-81 the Golden Bears represented Canada in the World Student Games in Spain and went undefeated to win the gold medal, one of the very few times since 1961 that Canada has won a major international hockey tournament.
Coach Drake has also served as the University's head football coach, and when asked to choose the highlight of his coaching career at the University, he chose the year 1967-68. That year he coached the football Bears to a victory in the Vanier Cup and then hurried home to take charge of the hockey team, leading them to the national title-the first time that any university had won the Canadian championships in both sports in the same year.
As he spoke about those games, the Coach stressed the drama of both. In the dying seconds of the football game his team led 11 to 9, but McMaster of Hamilton was pressing, inside of the Bear's 35-yard line. Perhaps because of the muddy field, the Easterners elected not to try a field goal and attempted a pass, which the Bears intercepted to seal the victory.
The final game of the hockey national finals tournament that year was played in the Montreal Forum with about 12,000 fans in attendance, likely the largest crowd which has ever witnessed a Canadian University hockey game. Except for a mere handful, all were supporters of the hometown Loyola team. They cheered as the hometowners skated to a 3 to 1 and then 4-1 lead. But the Bears did not give up and with five minutes remaining they tied the contest and, with only 17 seconds left, scored the winning goal.
Under Drake's guidance, the hockey Bears reached the national finals in 1974-75, 1976-77, 1977-78 and 1978-79, winning the championship three of those years. The past two years, however, have not been as illustrious and the Bears have been on the sidelines come playoff time.
"It's part of a cyclical thing," said Drake, adding that the league has become much more competitive, with very active recruiting program bringing good players to all of the teams.
"The league," he said,"is becoming better and better." He attributes some of that to the fact that the availability of scholarships and bursaries is helping attract some better players. While professing no strong feelings about the desirability or undesirability of athletic scholarships, he suggests that, handled properly, they can be a good thing, "a way of helping the athlete who spends a fair amount of extra time in a pursuit of excellence," and a way of counteracting the drain into the U.S. of many talented young people who leave Canada on a sports scholarship and do not return.
What about todays athlete? Does the college athlete of the '80s differ from his counterpart of the '50s? "There's not a pronounced difference," said Drake. But he did see some difference in the degree of commitment.
"There are more players that are not as committed," he said. "Given a team of 20 players, eight or 10 will be just as dedicated — a few maybe more so — but the remainder won't be as committed today."
During the 1975-76 hockey season, Drake took leave from the University to accept a one-year term as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, then in the World Hockey Association. His experience of the volatile world of professional hockey wasn't altogether pleasant: accustomed to success, he was fired before the year was through. The passing years have taken the edge off that experience and he has become philosophical about it.
"It was a good experience," he said,"— as most are if you can handle them." He went on to say that the experience has helped him develop opinions about sport and has helped his coaching by broadening his experience and giving him a better perspective of athletes.
But he admitted he was bitter at the time. And he is still far from happy with what happened. "I don't feel that it proved anything. I didn't have the opportunity to finish what I had started, and ultimately the experience just didn't prove anything."
He did, however, come to appreciate better that "so much of any coaching depends on your control of your destiny." There is many a hockey observer who would like to have seen what Clare Drake could have accomplished with the Oilers had he had more control of the team's destiny.
While the coach didn't altogether rule out another venture into the pro hockey world should the right sort of opportunity arise, he gave the impression that he considered the possibility of that happening to be remote.
"I really enjoy what I am doing," he said. These days that includes involvement with the Canadian University Hockey Coaches Association and serving on the Canadian Amatuer Hockey Association's elite program committee, in addition to his teaching and coaching duties at the University.
Published Summer 1982.