CATCHING UP WITH A FORMER WHEAT KING CAPTAIN
(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Never underestimate the value of a little bit of fatherly advice.
Terry Yake, now 50, skated for three seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings from 1985 to 1988. Even after playing more than 400 games in the National Hockey League and seven seasons in Europe, Yake credits his father Don with teaching him most of what he had to know as a youngster in tiny Mather.
“If you look at everything I learned in hockey, I learned 90 per cent of it from my father,” Yake said. “Dad may not have had the experience of all the NHL guys, but it doesn’t matter. He has the ability to figure it out. Even at the NHL level, he was more in tune with my game and what I needed to do than the NHL coaches were.”
Yake is told he first took to the ice at age two when the family was living in Aldergrove, B.C. The family moved to Manitoba when he was five or six, but he had already played a couple of years of organized hockey.
The switch to a small community in Manitoba — Mather is 150 kilometres southeast of Brandon, and 12 kilometres straight east of Cartwright — inspired him to spend more time on the rink.
With teams that brought together players from Mather, Clearwater and Crystal City, and with his father as coach for his entire minor hockey career, they would play other nearby communities.
“Not only did you have the sloughs outside to skate on, but you had a free rink,” Yake said. “In minor hockey, both Clearwater and Mather had a rink so the availability of ice was awesome. There was always somewhere to skate.”
The slough served as a great spot if it wasn’t a game or practice day. Yake said he loved to get the slough ice ready, and would spend time even in his boots just shooting a puck around.
Like all rural kids, he was reliant on his dad and mother Sandy to ferry him around. Yake is grateful for all the weekends they sacrificed to travel to games and tournaments.
“There’s a lot of time in the car,” Yake said. “There’s a great theory going around that part of the reason hockey players are the way that they are in comparison to some other athletes is the fact that we spend so much time in the car with our parents because it’s a requirement of getting to and from games and practices. It’s not baseball or football or soccer where you just need a ball and some open grass and can go out and play. It requires parental interaction and I think you get a lot of that.
“I had as much or more than anybody in the area because I was always in the car with my dad.”
Yake had three younger sisters who were involved in figure skating.
Don Yake was one of several key figures in putting together in 1985 what is now the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League. At the time, the province was broken into five rural regions and five Winnipeg teams, and they would meet in tournaments and exhibition games.
By that time, he had already been listed by the Wheat Kings, a story that makes him chuckle.
The 13-year-old rink rat had been invited to an open camp by Brandon scout Heavy Evason, and made quite an impression. In the first one-hour scrimmage, Yake scored about eight goals.
A couple of scouts came down to talk to get his name and age, and then went back up to the other scouts.
Five minutes later they were back, certain that they had misunderstood what year he was born because he was so much younger than everybody else and doing so well.
“They said ‘Are you sure?’” Yake laughed. “I said yes and they said ‘Is your dad here?’”
After checking with Don Yake, they asked Terry to stay for another session, and he duplicated his goal-scoring process. This time another set of scouts came down to check his age.
He was invited to regular camp a week later, and shortly after he got home a letter arrived in the mail telling him he had been listed by the Wheat Kings.
Yake knew a bit about the team growing up, but everything changed when he got a chance to attend a couple of games.
“That was the big league to me,” Yake said. “And once I got listed and went through two weekends of camp, I was hooked. That was my focus. It was the only thing I wanted to do. It’s where I wanted to play. To me, that was the NHL: Playing in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people or 2,000 people on a nightly basis would be the greatest thing in the world.
“I always said I wanted to play in the NHL, but I didn’t know the steps. Now I knew the first step.”
Yake attended a lot of games in Ray Ferraro’s sensational 108-goal season in 1983-84, and remembers going down to the dressing room after a game on the coaching staff’s invitation. He got down there, and Ferraro toured him around, introducing him to Ron Hextall, Cam Plante and others.
“I idolized Ray Ferraro,” Yake said. “He was a hockey god in the southern Manitoba area, and to have him show me around the locker room inspired me to say that this is absolutely where I want to go.”
Yake made the team the next fall as a 16-year-old — and scored his first goal — but only played 11 games before choosing to return home to play midget for one more year. He was a smaller player, the team was not going to be great and his parents thought it might be better to complete his Grade 11 at home.
He took extra credits at school, and as a result only had to take morning classes at Crocus Plains for his Grade 12 year when he finally joined the Wheat Kings full time as a 17-year-old.
He admits everything changed for him from his 16-year-old to 17-year-old seasons.
“You’re terrified to make mistakes and you’re just going out there trying to survive the shift and survive the game and hope they want to call you back to play another one,” Yake said of his first taste with the club. “When you’re on the team and make the roster and are in the lineup, your whole focus shifts. Now it’s your responsibility to do something. You have to score, you have to make something happen.”
Yake said he remembers being shocked at how strong players were in the corner, and in an era when a defenceman could just wrap a forward up, it was difficult at his size. He quickly learned he had to be quicker and get in and out before the defenders could grab him.
He got stronger every year of his career working out with his uncle on the farm, and also spent hours on the ice. On off days, he and some of his teammates would be on the ice by noon or 1 o’clock for a 1:30 practice and trainer Craig Heisinger would chase them off the ice and out of the dressing room after 6.
Yake posted 26 goals and 26 assists in his rookie season in 1985-86, and exploded for a team-leading 44 goals and 58 assists in his second year.
He said with the graduation of players such as Byron Lomow and Derek Laxdal, more opportunities existed and the team got younger. With another summer of hard training under his belt and new special teams opportunities, Yake stepped into the limelight.
The Wheat Kings would miss the playoffs for a second year in a row, but Yake said the players never faltered under the direction of “character guys” like Jeff Odgers or Kevin Cheveldayoff.
“The character keeps you going,” Yake said. “Like most junior kids, we all loved to play. And yes, it’s tough when you’re losing more than you’re winning, and those first couple of years we did lose more than we won, but at the end of the day we were all living our dream.”
Another dream came true in Detroit on June 13, 1987. With his family at his side, the Hartford Whalers called his name in the fourth round with the 81st overall pick in the NHL draft.
“That was truly the thrill of a lifetime,” said Yake, who was especially happy that it was moment he was able to share with his parents.
Yake returned to Brandon for his 19-year-old season, and in his second year as captain he scored 55 goals and added 85 assists to finish sixth overall in the WHL in scoring with 140 points behind a group that included Joe Sakic, Theo Fleury and Mark Recchi.
It’s the 13th best single season points mark in Wheat Kings history.
“I believed that I was going to score every time I stepped on the ice that year,” Yake said.
The Wheat Kings fell 3-1 in their quarter-final series, an outcome Yake thinks would have been very different without a slash that broke his finger in Game 3 against the first-place Prince Albert Raiders.
Remarkably, Yake played 215 of 216 possible regular season games during his three years in Brandon, and remains annoyed with himself for admitting to head coach Gord Lane that he wasn’t feeling well one night in his second season and being scratched as a result.
“That was a lesson for me for the rest of my career,” Yake said. “I wasn’t missing a game unless I absolutely physically couldn’t play.”
He turned pro in his overage year for the 1988-89 season with the Binghamton Whalers of the American Hockey League. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 31, 1989 in Hartford against the Buffalo Sabres.
On his first shift, Phil Housley took a penalty against him almost immediately and he was on the ice for just a few seconds.
“I had broken through a major part of the nerves but unfortunately I was honestly so thrilled and excited to be in the NHL that it did take me a long time to feel comfortable at that level,” Yake said.
He would play two games that season, and 401 more games over the next 10 years with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim — who he led in scoring in 1993-94 with 52 points — the Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals.
After spending much of the 2000-01 season in the AHL as the captain of the Portland Pirates — and with no solid contract offers coming in — Yake moved to Europe for a seven-year stint in Germany and Switzerland.
Because the path back to the North American professional hockey from Europe isn’t clearly defined, Yake knew it was a career-altering decision. But with a young family, he could get a lucrative offer and play in a league with fewer games where he could spend virtually every night at home.
“Do I regret the decision?” Yake said. “No, because I don’t know that finding a job in North America in the American Hockey League would have led to more NHL games. But it was a real difficult one to go over and it was one that I actually didn’t want to make and didn’t enjoy making.”
He admits it took him time to deal with his disappointment and to really become receptive to his new reality.
“Once you accept it, it’s a wonderful place to go and play,” Yake said.
Yake served as a player-coach for the last two seasons of his playing career, and took a floundering Lausanne HC team to a championship in the 2008-09 season. He quit playing the next year, but was replaced as head coach at mid-season.
The family of four — his wife Tanya and daughters Peyton and Addison — returned to their home in St. Louis, Mo. Near the end of his hockey career in 2008, he started a meat distribution business with a partner that brought beef down from his parents’ farm, so he had work when he returned.
After 10 years, he sold the business earlier this spring.
Yake also serves on both the St. Louis and NHL alumni associations, and a full-time job with the Blues keeps him busy. (He appears on the big screen between periods at games.)
He said he left the game fairly healthy but does have to stay in shape. He still skates two or three times a week, and returned to Canada to chase Allan Cup championships with the South East Prairie Thunder for five years until age 47. He won the Canadian senior AAA hockey championship in 2012 and 2015.
He still comes up to Manitoba a couple times per year to visit his family.
For Yake, it’s hard to express how much hockey has given him.
“It’s done everything you can imagine for me,” Yake said. “I really can’t even tell you what I would have done with my life without it.”