The end of an era became official Saturday night (July 25) at Culver Academies. An era that has witnessed unprecedented success in the quality of the teams on the ice and the quality of men and women who have walked off it.
After 39 years, Prep Hockey Coach Al Clark officially retired with more than 200 people assembling to help send him off. They included NHL players, Olympians, and countless minor league, collegiate, and junior players along with several people who have become staples of the Culver Academies hockey family.
And, while the weekend was intended to be a celebration of the Culver hockey program in general, it became a grand send-off for the man who started the program on an outdoor rink in 1976. Starting with a team that included only 10 to 12 players who knew how to skate, Clark has overseen the growth of a program that now boasts four boys teams and a varsity girls team. Culver hockey has sent players to the best academic institutions in America along with the typical NCAA powers. It has produced 25 state championships, 26 NHL draftees, nine NHL players, five Olympians, and three Hobey Baker finalists – including one winner.
During the Saturday evening dinner, keynote speaker John U. Bacon, who served as a coach under Clark while interning at Culver, said the coach’s values “are timeless and transferable.”
Bacon, now a sports columnist, told the audience how he volunteered to coach his old high school team after it had suffered a long losing streak. The team was considered so bad that it was actually ranked the worst in the nation on one website, he said. He called Clark for advice.
While other coaches would have said make it fun or enjoyable, Clark told Bacon he had to “make it special” and you make it special by making it “hard. Sell them the hard.” Instill in the players the work ethic needed to be successful. Following Clark’s advice, Bacon said he was able to turn the program around. “That’s because Al’s stuff works.”
Clark’s moral compass runs “true north” and he takes pride in developing great players and great students. “His pride in you was immense,” Bacon said, adding Clark treated the players like adults but he didn’t expect anyone to be perfect. Because if all the players were perfect, “our jobs wouldn’t mean much.”
Bacon added that the people in the room is how Clark will be remembered.
“You are his legacy,” he told the audience. Culver is one of the finest hockey programs in America and that is a legacy that needs to be “passed down.”
I’m proud to be a part of your life. It’s been wonderful. – Al Clark
Speaking for CGA, Molly Engstrom ’01 said her first day at Culver was “one of the hardest days of my life.” But that, sometimes, the biggest bump, the thing that causes the most havoc, can also reap the biggest rewards.
The start of her career at Culver wasn’t easy but it prepared her for the end of her playing career. “It is impossible to know what Culver was doing for you when you’re a 15- or 17-year-old,” she said. But Culver’s academics put her a step ahead when it came time to go to the University of Wisconsin, just like it helped other CGA players who went to Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth.
“Coming to Culver was the best decision I ever made,” she said. It gave her the opportunity to play in college – to go to college – then continue playing for 10 years after. “All I ever wanted to do was compete,” she said.
But when her playing career “ground to a halt,” she remembered that 15-year-old entering Culver for the first time. And that helped her “find my own way,” which included earning a master’s degree in sports administration from Russian International Olympic University in Sochi, Russia. She is now the head girls coach at Kimball Union Academy.
Clark finished the evening thanking everyone for all the accolades, which included naming Rink A the J. Allan Clark Ice Rink, but that he was “overwhelmed and a little embarrassed.” He paraphrased Mark Twain, saying that when you find something you enjoy doing, “you will never work another day in your life.” He knew that if he didn’t “screw it up,” the hockey program would be successful.
Clark added that he always believed there were two gates that were important for all Culver hockey players. One was the gate that leads the players to the ice and the second is the Iron Gate. Of the two, the Iron Gate is the most important. He wanted everyone to graduate from Culver because it is “a special place.”
And the results of that focus, he said, “are a pretty impressive group of individuals. I’m proud to be a part of your life. It’s been wonderful.”
(The above video was shown at the dinner Saturday night. It was produced by Corey Rhodes ’91 and edited by Bill Sebastian, Brian Christner ’79 and John Henderson ’81 compiled the photos and video. O. Morris Begley and Jim Henderson Sr. captured the original footage on 8mm film. Lew Kopp recorded the interviews.)