“You Work Hard for the People Who Believe in You”: Dave Drinkill’s Story

Let’s start with the obvious.

Dave Drinkill likes his job.

No. Dave Drinkill LOVES his job.

That’s one of the reasons Dave currently holds the reins as General Manager of the Saginaw Spirit hockey team. He has a passion for the game and a love for this career.

“I always wanted to be the guy who didn’t know the difference between Saturday and Monday,” he said. 

Mission accomplished. What’s the secret?

Dave didn’t wait for the doors to open. He always knew he had the key.

Farm to Table

Leading the charge of a hockey team has been a goal for Dave since he was just a small-town kid in Elmvale, Ontario (Population: 1,800).

“I always loved hockey; I was a goalie,” he said. “When I was younger, I’d have trading cards, or we’d play video games, and I loved trading players to get the most assets. As part of the video game, you could go into ‘GM mode’ and sign guys and trade them. I loved that. I always wanted to be a General Manager.”

Dave also grew up valuing hard work. It’s all he’s ever known.

“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “We have beef/cattle and cash crops. For a long time, my only job was working on our family’s two farms doing field work and labor. I worked there from when I was 13 all the way through University. It was a livelihood, but I knew it was not what I wanted to do with my life.”

When Dave was 17, he learned about Laurentian University’s Sport Administration program in Canada.

“I started reading about a program there to become a GM,” Dave said. “I knew there was an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) GM who went to that program. I got into three different schools, but decided to go to Laurentian.”

Laurentian’s four-year program is where Dave’s passion pursuits really kicked off. He realized that he needed to stand out from the competition.

“I got to University and the instructor asked, “Who wants to be a GM?’” Dave said. “Everyone raised their hand. I realized I wasn’t the only one with this goal, and I knew I needed to get a leg up.”

Dave now had a goal. He became relentless about getting as much experience as he could from all sides of hockey operations.

Experience, Experience, Experience

As a student, Dave’s initial hands-on, off-the-ice hockey experience wasn’t exactly glamorous. But it was helpful.

“In my third year at University, I volunteered in game day operations for the Sudbury Wolves, a junior hockey team for the OHL,” he said. “Basically I was an intern. I would blow up the inflatable wolf head (the team’s mascot was the wolves), then I would take it down. I helped out with game day duties, got coffee for the media room, helped with on-ice promotions…a lot of different tasks. That job was good for me.”

Next, he took an unpaid five-month internship in the communications department with the Hamilton Bulldogs, a former American Hockey League team, now of the OHL. He earned his degree and moved back home.

His pursuit for more experience didn’t waiver.

Dave’s biggest asset? His ability to simply ask if a team needed help… and his willingness to do it for free.

“I knew no one was going to hand it to me,” Dave said. “Working in farming and construction, it was hard work and late nights. This is all I’ve ever known. I’m not afraid of hard work. It’s ingrained in me. So I cold-called the Barrie Colts, of the Ontario Hockey League. Just cold-called them. I knew their media relations director; he graduated four years ahead of me.”

For the rest of the year, he volunteered with the team. His eagerness paid off.  

“The next year, the coaches needed an eye in the sky and asked me to do it,” he said. “I traveled and helped out the team while still working a real job in construction and on the family farm.”

Dave continued to gain experience with the Colts: first, helping out with team stats, and then as a video coach. He was making connections left and right, learning from others and expanding his knowledge of what goes into running a hockey team.

“I got in tight with the scouts and really started learning,” he said. “I loved scouting. The scouts were very good to me and took me around and taught me. I started writing reports. It was just me volunteering to do it, but it helped a ton.”

Dave’s efforts were recognized by Jason Ford, who got promoted to Barrie Colts GM. That’s when a large door opened for Dave.

“He made me assistant GM because I had done a good job scouting,” he said. “I was heavily involved in trades, contracts…my fingerprints were on the team.”

Dave was the Assistant General Manager of the Barrie Colts for four seasons. From his start as a volunteer to his stint as Assistant General Manager, he spent nine years with the Colts in various roles.

“It was cool to be so close to the goal of general manager,” he said. “I had spent so much time working towards this goal, sacrificing fun times with friends, but I knew it’s what I wanted. Once I got the title of Assistant General Manager, I figured I was getting closer.”

He was right.

Soaring With Us

Dave connected with the Saginaw Spirit the same way he first connected with the Barrie Colts. He picked up the phone.

“In the summer of 2015, the former Saginaw GM [Jim Paliafito] had gotten a job in Toronto, so I reached out to Saginaw,” Dave said. “I figured, ‘Hey, why not?’ I had been at Barrie for four years. I was getting antsy.”

Saginaw got back to Dave. They scheduled an interview.

Still, Dave didn’t get his hopes up.

“I didn’t think I was their first choice for GM,” he said. “They saw candidates with more experience than me. I was nervous, but I saw the interview as experience.”

Dave said his interview with Saginaw Spirit president and managing partner Craig Goslin and team owner Dick Garber was unlike any interview he’d ever done before.

“They asked me everything about my life: what my parents did, how I was raised, where I grew up,” he said. “I remembered the time just flew by.”

In early July of 2015, Dave got called back for a second interview.

“My first thought was, ‘What are they going to ask me?’ since they had asked me so much about my life the first time around,” he laughed. “I remember thinking, ‘Should I have a PowerPoint presentation?’ But I went in there and was just myself.”

Dave went back home to Ontario. He was in the middle of a farm field when his phone rang.

“I was working on the family farm cutting hay; I like cutting hay; it’s a peaceful experience,” he said. “I was in the middle of a field, all by myself on a tractor, and the phone rang. Saginaw offered me the General Manager job. It was the coolest day. Blue skies. I didn’t tell anyone at first. Just went back to cutting hay.”

He had achieved one of his dreams. But he didn’t bask too long in the glory of a goal achieved. It was time to get to work.

“I called all the players, introduced myself, hired a scouting staff…” he said. “It felt good to have the reins. I had taken a lot of lessons from other GMs, but it was nice to be able to put my spin on it.”

Seven years later, and he’s still adding his spin to the Spirit.

Looking Ahead

As General Manager, Dave touches multiple parts of hockey operations: constructing the roster, waivers, managing staff, watching minor league hockey, league work, setting up the program.

He also scouts for the OHL draft. His days as playing a GM for a video game have turned into reality.

Dave’s dedication to his role has served him – and Saginaw – well, to say the least. He has helped lead the team to back-to-back West Division championships in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.

He’s also earned the title of winningest General Manager in Saginaw Spirit history, a feat that undoubtedly comes from his passion and work ethic that he gained all those years ago on the farm. 

When it comes to day-to-day duties, variety is the spice of life for Dave.

“Not every day is the same, which I love,” he said. “I need to do different things, and that’s what I love. The day flies by.”

He doesn’t do it alone. Dave said he’s proud to work alongside a stellar team.

“I couldn’t do any of this without my great hockey staff: coaches, assistant GM, trainers, scouts,” he said. “Without them, I would never be successful. I can’t do this alone, and I would never want to take the credit or act like this is all on me, because it certainly isn’t. We are a team in every sense of the word.”

To build a strong team roster, Dave said intentionality – and witnessing the player in action – is key. But there’s no perfect formula.

“I’ll watch kids 15-20 times before we draft,” he said. “They’re young, and we try our best, but there’s no science to it. If there was, we’d win every year. The ones who do the best are the ones who can deal with adversity.”

Age is also a huge factor.

“It’s a cyclical league,” Dave explained. “At 16 or 17, it’s hard to play against 20 year olds. The development is different. When the players start with us, they are young boys. We help them grow into men. They come in as boys and leave as men.”

Players’ growth and progress is what Dave loves to be a part of – but it brings its share of challenging conversations, too.

“Meeting kids and their families at 15 and watching the players’ progress in their career and seeing them meet their goal…that is so rewarding to me,” he said. “But it’s hard, too….to have to look players in the eye and say, ‘You’ve been traded.’ It’s tough.”

When it comes to the community and fans, Dave said that’s one of the best parts of the role.

“I’m passionate about Saginaw,” he said. “It’s a hidden gem of the OHL. I love the corporate support and the support from our community…watching this place be packed with fans. I love the fans. I love walking through the crowd and saying hi.”

Dave said he also appreciates the support that comes from the top down at Garber.

“Garber cares,” he said. “What always stuck with me is how they care about you and your family and your life. It’s not an attitude of, ‘What can you do for me?’ They’ve helped me grow as a person by giving me examples of how to manage problems and handle things with calm integrity. I’ve become a better listener and problem solver. Garber has great people, and that motivates you to be successful. You always work hard for people who believe in you, and Garber believes in me.”

Fast Five (Nah, Let’s Do Six)

First concert? Worked a Finger Eleven concert as security. My first sports game was a Blue Jays game

Biggest difference between Canada and the US? Everything in the US is a big deal. Michigan vs MSU is a full-blown EVENT. Superbowl…Thanksgiving…everything is a big deal. Americans are passionate people. I’m a big USA fan.

First car? Hand-me-down 1993 Mercury Topaz. Red.

Favorite food? Steak

Three words to describe your personality? Honest, loyal, hardworking

Bucket list item? Win a championship

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Lindsay Henry

Lindsay Henry

Lindsay is the Digital Communications Manager for Garber Automotive Group.

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