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Warrior Drake departing a champion

by Larry Wigge
Dallas Drake was that quintessential pro. He loved to talk about a teammate or a play he saw the night before that got him excited about the game he loved.

Drake always has been a sports fan first and also a rink rat. At 6-foot and 186 pounds, he never was the biggest, strongest or fastest player. But he played with passion, energy and had one of the biggest hearts you'll ever find.

On June 4, Drake got the thrill of a lifetime when, after 15 NHL seasons, Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom handed the Stanley Cup to him to celebrate their six-game triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I was shocked at what Nick and the guys did for me," Drake said. "I never expected him to hand me the Cup. I just knew I was finally going to get my hands on that trophy, the one every player dreams about hoisting as a kid in their backyard or on their driveway."

With Drake's energy and love for the game, he could have played another five years, but on July 15, he announced that after 1,009 NHL games with Detroit, Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis, it was time to bow out on the highest of highs.

"I played a long time, I had a lot of fun," Drake, 39, told reporters. "After winning the Stanley Cup this year, there's not a better way for me to go out. Mentally, I think I still really want to play. I love the game as much as I ever have. But physically, my body just doesn't recover as well from the wear and tear of the game anymore ..."

There was a short pause before he added, "You don't have to worry about me pulling a (Green Bay Packers star quarterback) Brett Favre and announcing that I've changed my mind and I want to come back and play. I'm done."

"I've always said, 'Give me a team with about 10-15 Dallas Drakes and we'd be right there for the Stanley Cup every year. Players with 'Dally's' commitment, competitiveness and passion to the game are rare.”

-- Former teammate Keith Tkachuk

The Red Wings selected Drake in the sixth round (No. 116) in the 1989 Entry Draft, making him part of what might have been the most talent reeled in by any team in one draft class -- Mike Sillinger in the first round, Bob Boughner in the second, Lidstrom in the third, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth, Drake in the sixth and Vladimir Konstantinov in Round 11.

Drake played the next three seasons at Northern Michigan University, and in his senior season had 39 goals and 41 assists in 38 games and earned first team All-America honors.

His first stint in Detroit lasted 119 games, when he was traded to Winnipeg on March 8, 1994, along with goaltender Tim Cheveldae, for goalie Bob Essensa. He spent more than two seasons in Winnipeg and another four in Phoenix, then six in St. Louis wondering what would have happened if he had stayed with the Red Wings after seeing the success of Stanley Cup runs in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

"I never asked them to trade me for a goaltender back in 1994," Drake said during the playoffs. "I'll never complain about the time I spent in Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis. But, yeah, I've wondered about what my career would have been like if I had remained with the Wings for all of those years."

Just a few weeks ago, former Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis teammate Keith Tkachuk repeated comments he made to me about Drake many times.

"I've always said, 'Give me a team with about 10-15 Dallas Drakes and we'd be right there for the Stanley Cup every year,'" Tkachuk said. "Players with 'Dally's' commitment, competitiveness and passion to the game are rare."

Drake is a warrior that any team would love to have.

Before the Stanley Cup Final, Drake talked emotionally about how he has watched other veterans -- Teemu Selanne, Doug Weight, Glen Wesley, Dave Andreychuk, Luc Robitaille, Ray Bourque -- put an exclamation point on a long and successful career with a Cup triumph.

"I've felt happy for all of those guys, not jealous," Drake admitted. "Well maybe a little. I remember having chills when I saw Dougie Weight try to raise the Stanley Cup in celebration with a bum shoulder after Carolina won the Cup in 2007. I've been to the conference finals twice, but really, I've never been close."

"You hope to God that someday you'll get the chance.”

-- Dallas Drake

Drake remembered text-messaging Weight several times during his run through the Final with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2007 wishing him the best ... but at that point in our interview he paused for a moment of reflection and provided the sound bite of the century when he said, "You hope to God that someday you'll get the chance."

Last summer, Drake said he was pleasantly surprised by the call he got from Wings General Manager Ken Holland asking him to come back to Detroit and play an energy role for the Red Wings only days after St. Louis released him.

"My agent told me of Detroit's interest right away, and to be honest, I was a little shocked at how quickly they called," Drake said. "I thought I was going to have to wait a while to get an offer from another team. When I got that phone call, there was no contest. I was going back to Detroit. To get a good chance to win a Cup at this stage of my career is exciting. This is a team that competes for the Stanley Cup every year and that's what I was looking for.

"When I started out in this League with Detroit I had visions of scoring 20 and 30 goals every season. But you soon learn that there's much, much more involved in winning. What is important is making your team difficult to play every night. And that starts with everyone competing. To me, the only way to think about it is to play each game like it might be your last."

Beyond the grit and determination, there aren't many smarter players in the game. No one watches more hockey than Drake. He knows the tendencies, he knows the players to watch, he knows the players you can distract with a big hit even before the coaching staff goes over the opposition.

"I hate to lose in anything I do," Drake said. "I have a friend I go fishing with each summer and if I come home without a fish you don't want to be around me. When I lose at cards to my wife I'm hard to live with. And when my son beats me at PlayStation, well ..."

Drake was reunited in Detroit with old friends Lidstrom, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and Darren McCarty.

"This is incredible, especially when I look back to where I was last year at this time," Drake said of being out of the playoffs for the second straight year in St. Louis. "It's scary how you come to the rink every day and expect to win ... and usually do. Think about that for a minute. Also, I've been amazed at how many Wings fans we run into almost everywhere on the road. It's like they've got a cult following or something."

With the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup, I could feel the excitement coming out of Drake, and I'll never forget his final words on that day.

"It's already sending chills up my spine," he said.

Going out on top -- guys like Dallas Drake deserve that.

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