“I think it’s a good way for me to go out.”
So said a frayed and exhausted Dallas Drake upon announcing his retirement after 16 National Hockey League seasons. A month earlier, the 39-year-old Red Wings forward had finally realized a lifelong ambition – a dream he had entertained since his childhood days of milking cows on his family’s dairy farm in Rossland, British Columbia. Drake’s journey from the drudgery of lifting milk cans to the euphoria of hoisting a Stanley Cup is not only a lesson in perseverance, it’s one of those feel-good kind of stories that’s worth remembering as NHL players and owners continue in their latest round of off-ice contentiousness.
Drake joined the Wings in 1992 as a high-scoring but still defensive-minded winger straight out of Northern Michigan University. Although he came to camp with fairly low expectations, he made the transition from student athlete to NHL rookie with commendable ease. The rangy six-footer, a left-handed shot, averaged a goal every fourth or fifth game during his initial two-season tour of duty at The Joe, though it was his penalty-killing skills and hard work rattling molars in the corners that made him a valuable asset to the championship puzzle being assembled, piece by piece, by Bryan Murray and Scotty Bowman in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately for Drake, he wasn’t around to enjoy the benefits of a classy, deep-pocketed organization for very long. He and goalie Tim Cheveldae were traded to Winnipeg for goalie Bob Essensa and defenseman Sergei Bautin. Winnipeg was a mess, the franchise finally relocating to Phoenix in 1996. As Bowman’s Wings won Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, and 2002, Drake was lucky if the team he was skating for got into the playoffs at all, much less deep into the postseason. During seven seasons with Winnipeg/Phoenix and six more with St. Louis, only once did he get as far as the conference finals. That was in 2001, when the Blues were steamrollered by Colorado in five games.
Still, Drake was content – to a point. He was widely respected by his teammates and was the Blues’ captain for his last two seasons. He ended the 2006-07 season on the injured reserve list with a wrist injury and was put on waivers. He was happily married, with a growing brood of kids, money in the bank, and the economics degree he had earned at NMU. But his competitiveness still burned. At the same time, the Wings, who had been out-muscled by Anaheim in the ’07 conference finals, were looking to get meaner. One last kick at the can, Drake decided, signing a one-year $550,000 deal for the 2007-08 season.
Drake proved a bargain at that price. Hampered by injuries, he nonetheless appeared in 65 regular season games and all 22 playoff contests for coach Mike Babcock. He shook off the aches and welts that made getting out of bed each morning a chore, contributing his customary grit, professionalism, and the occasional goal. “The physical pounding that Dallas laid on the other teams’ defenses is something we didn’t have in the last couple of years,” Wings GM Ken Holland said.
On June 4, 2008, at Pittsburgh, the Wings closed out their campaign with champagne, downing the Penguins, 3-2, in the sixth game of the Finals to claim their fourth Cup in 12 seasons. As captain, Nicklas Lidstrom was given the honor of hoisting the Stanley Cup first. And then Lidstrom handed it off to Drake, who joyously skated around The Igloo’s ice, his chronic hurts falling away in the slipstream. It was an emotional moment for Drake. He had come full circle, finally savoring a championship with the team he had broken in with almost two decades earlier.
A few weeks later, Drake announced his retirement. He was physically spent, he said, his body no longer able to recover from the hits he had endured and dished out over the years.
“He was a true professional, and the guys wanted to win for him,” Babcock said. “You can never replace the will of a quality man and quality veteran.”