The year was 1980. Mike Johnston, his university playing career over, wanted to get into coaching and was about to catch a break. Camrose Lutheran College, near Edmonton, was looking. Johnston had been tipped to the opening by Andy Murray, his former coach in Brandon, and recommended by Dave King, from the University of Saskatchewan.
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“This was August,” began Johnston, “and they told me, ‘Camrose College was looking for a young coach, but he needed to be able to teach and he needed to be able to live in residence.’”
Johnston applied – because everyone needs to start somewhere – and ultimately got the job. First day, they handed him a recruiting booklet, what the athletic director had been doing, recruiting-wise for hockey, after the last coach had left.
The next thing they said was, “You better order some equipment because the season’s getting started.” Camrose College traditionally ordered its equipment from United Cycle in Edmonton.
“So I drove right into United Cycle, and out of the back room came this big guy, and he introduces himself,” Johnston said. “It’s Ken Hitchcock. He said, ‘I coach the Sherwood Park Chain Gang and if you ever need some players, call me.’ We started a relationship from there. My first day on the job, I go into town to buy equipment and the first guy I meet is Ken Hitchcock.”
What Johnston didn’t realize at the time was that his first full-time job put him right in the middle of an Alberta coaching incubator that would eventually help produce a generation of the NHL’s top coaches. Some of the brightest minds in the game were plying their trade at the university level – at a time when the NHL was paying scant attention to the college game on either side of the border.
The coaches who were helping to develop some of the techniques you still see in today’s game – King, Clare Drake at the University of Alberta and George Kingston at the University of Calgary – were all within driving distance of Johnston’s first job.
Now, some 30-plus years after the fact, the coaching pendulum has swung in a big, meaningful way. This past summer, all three of the NHL first-time coaching hires – Johnston in Pittsburgh, Bill Peters in Carolina and Willie Desjardins in Vancouver – all came through the Canadian college coaching ranks. So, for that matter, did Barry Trotz, the long-time Nashville Predators coach, now with the Washington Capitals, and Mike Babcock, coach of the Detroit Red Wings and a two-time Canadian Olympic coach.
Babcock lists Drake as his primary mentor, dating back to the time he spent coaching Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge. In turn, Babcock’s staff in Detroit subsequently spun off Peters, Paul MacLean (Ottawa) and Todd McLellan (San Jose) to other NHL head coaching positions. Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett lists King as his greatest influence.
Babcock believes Drake is Canada’s equivalent to the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, whom he met when he was coaching the Anaheim Ducks and flatly states: “I’m a head coach in the NHL because of Clare Drake. Everybody he’s touched, he’s made better. He’s a great teacher of hockey strategies and life skills.”
Soon after starting at Camrose, Johnston established a relationship with Drake and his assistant Billy Moores, along with King, Kingston and Perry Pearn, at Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).
“For me to develop as a coach, the biggest thing for me was being in Alberta at that time,” Johnston said. “The quality of coaches we had around there, they were great mentors.
“Clare Drake, I mention his name in the United States and some people don’t even know who he is. He should be like Vince Lombardi, with all he’s done for hockey. They had a big, big influence over me as a young coach, because I knew nothing about coaching. Nothing. Those guys in Alberta, I was just so fortunate to be in that province at that time with so many good coaches and such good influences around me.”
Of course, many hardcore Canadian hockey fans have forgotten, if they were ever aware, that Drake is the coach with the most wins in CIS history, having guided a Golden Bears dynasty from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.
Peters is a generation removed from Drake’s influence, but spent three formative years at the University of Lethbridge, where he landed his first head coaching position. According to Peters, he was passed over for the head coaching job in Spokane (WHL) after Babcock left, largely because he had no previous head coaching experience.
“You’ve got to go somewhere to get that, and the CIS allowed me to do that,” Peters said. “I spent three good years in Lethbridge and enjoyed my time there, working with good people. I got to do some stuff with Hockey Canada and be around a lot of good coaches in that area so it was a good opportunity for me. Then I went back to major junior as a head coach, then to the American League and then to the National League. I’m a career coach and I don’t think I’ve missed any steps along the way.”
King, the three-time Olympic coach and now head coach of Russia’s Lokotmotiv Yaroslavl, said Drake taught his peers that it was okay to share information – and the craft of coaching evolved from there.
“His teaching skills were impressive, but that can be said about a lot of people,” King said. “The key with Clare was he had all this information and he was never afraid to step up to the podium and tell everybody exactly what he was doing – on the penalty killing, or on the power play.
“Some of the most successful coaches of their generation, all these guys who’ve won a lot of games in the NHL – Hitchcock, Babcock, Dave Tippett, Trotzy – so many of them were influenced by Clare Drake. He wasn’t afraid to give you the information and that caused others to realize ‘I can share too.’
“What that’s done for our game is absolutely unbelievable. When you get your top people going and presenting the material to guys at coaching clinics – and helping them along with their coaching and the way they work with their young players, I mean, Clare was the catalyst for that. Suddenly, we have momentum in the coaching profession, going to seminars, making presentations. Hitch has done a whole bunch, Babcock’s done tons, Trotzy. That’s why our game is the way it is.”
King, currently in the midst of his third stint coaching in Russia, says the appreciation for Canadian coaches has never been higher, a significant reversal from 20 or more years ago, when there was a thought that all the coaching innovations were coming from Europe.
“It’s interesting for me to be in Russia and to see the renewed respect for Canadian hockey,” King said. “Imagine the Russians, they’re bringing over our fitness coaches, our hockey coaches, our sports psychologists, they’re bringing them all to Russia – because they want to tap in to our knowledge. If you look at all that, it started with Clare Drake.”
According to Peters, coaching is – and should be – a lifelong learning experience.
“In the off-season, you ask your players to get better and as a coach you’ve got to find a way to get better too,” Peters said. “You compete against your buddies and you want to beat them more than anybody. The coaching seminars put on by Hockey Canada and Hockey Alberta are outstanding, but when the coaches get together at the lake, it’s those informal meetings that help you get a little better and get some good hockey discussion going. It’s a learning environment and we’re lucky in Western Canada. There are a lot of quality coaches here.”