20 August 2011

Chris Drury in Hockey Heaven

courtesy of ohforfun.typepad.com
Where do great athletes go when they retire? The well-trodden paths are broadcasting and business, supplemented by charity events, speaking engagements, golf tournaments, and sporting events where a piece of them still belongs. Am I the only one who hates it when athletes retire and then immediately hit the broadcasting booth where they just smile on TV and yuk it up and don't offer any more insight than Uncle Dave would after a six-pack? OK, exceptions are Charles Barkley and Cris Collinsworth, but for everyone else there's a large disconnect to me as a sports fan. My relationship to the player ends after he stops doing what he does best, playing a stupid game. It's just hard to imagine that the guy in your TV wearing a suit and tie and breaking down a play has anything to do with the guy you watched, in Chris Drury's case, play with more guts and magic than anyone you've ever seen. Chris Drury has announced he's retiring from hockey while spending time with his ghosts in Williamsport, PA., the site of his legendary and improbable Little League World Series performance in 1989, where he pitched a 5-hit complete game shutout of Taiwan and added two runs-batted-in.

Drury was a special, once in a lifetime player. Never the fastest, never the hardest shot, certainly never the biggest, and never really an elite scorer,  he formed (along with Danny Briere) the leadership of a team that came a period away from a Stanley Cup showdown with Edmonton in 2006. But he made up for all his physical limitations by being heady, not making mistakes, and scoring exactly when the team needed it. I don't know if there's been a better clutch scorer in recent hockey history than Chris Drury. Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price had this to say about Drury in 2007:

Drury is, in fact, one of the greatest clutch players in sports. Ever. At 13 he led Trumbull, Conn., to its shocking win over mighty Taiwan in the 1989 Little League World Series, five months after helping his Greater Bridgeport Pee Wee hockey team win the '89 amateur national championship. Ever since, the wins and the honors have rolled in like boxcars: a state hockey title in high school, an NCAA title his freshman year at BU, the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's best hockey player, the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. Hardly a prolific scorer, Drury knocked in four playoff game-winning goals that first year for Colorado, and two seasons later, stepping out of the shadows of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, he scored 11 goals in the Avalanche's 23-game playoff run to the 2001 Stanley Cup title. He has tallied 12 playoff game-winners -- one more than the great Lemieux -- and his four overtime goals in the postseason are tied for second most among active players.

Chris Drury's most unforgettable moments in Buffalo both came in 2007. In a February game against Ottawa, Senators head-hunter Chris Neil lowered a dirty blindside shoulder straight to Drury's head, concussing him. I remember watching this game live, the Sabres were having a magical season and went on to win the franchise's first Presidents Trophy. I remember the shot of Lindy Ruff, masking the anger of all of Buffalo in his bright red angry pumpkin face, audibly yelling at Ottawa coach (Brian Murray?) "DON'T GO AFTER OUR FUCKING CAPTAIN!!" Of course Briere and Drury were co-captains, and they complemented each other well in those roles. Briere was fiery, mercurial, flashy, outspoken. He carried grudges and was deceptively dirty, never above a spear or a high-stick. Drury almost never spoke (I can't even remember what his voice sounds like), he was never dirty, always composed, ready. But at the moment that Lindy Ruff was going all Mel Gibson from the bench, there was no doubt, in my mind at least, that Drury was the team's heart and soul.

When play resumes, Murray inexplicably throws his number one line on the ice, Spezza, Alfredsson, Heatley, a line that would carry the Sens to the Cup that year. It's hard to imagine what Murray would have been thinking, putting them out there right after the Sabres top player had been drilled by a cheap hit to the head,  someone spending as much time as Murray had around hockey had to know retaliation of at least, edgy play, was on the docket immediately. Ruff wasted no time in putting Adam Mair, Andrew Peters, and Patrick Kaleta (in his NHL debut, I believe) on the ice and they in turn wasted no time in initiating one the most memorable brawls in Sabre history. Watching the replays on youtube, I'm amazed the linesman even had the chance to drop the puck, Kaleta and his man were already sparring. 

The other moment came in the playoffs, a game 5 against the Rangers in Buffalo, I think the series was 2-2. A 1-0 Rangers game until late in the third when the Rangers got called for an icing with 13 seconds left. Drury won the face off, controlled the puck into the corner, feathered it out front for a shot from the slot area and headed around the other side of the net where the puck magically found his stick on a rebound that he quickly shot through traffic and into the net to tie the game 1-1. Watching the play even now makes the hair on my neck stand up. The Sabres were the winningest team in hockey that year but something had been missing in the playoffs, they looked flat and didn't seem as dominant as the team that lost to Carolina in Game 7 of the Conference Finals the year before. This Drury goal was the first moment I thought that Buffalo had a shot to win that year. I've been watching hockey for twenty years or so, and it's so rare to see a player with that combination of determination and luck. Drury has always been a kind of phantom on the ice, magically disappearing and reappearing exactly where he needed to be at the right time
But where does Drury go now? He's not that old but his knees are bad enough that no team wanted to sign him, forcing his hand into retirement. It was hard enough watching him leave Buffalo due to incompetent ownership, he's the kind of player that as a fan you just wait 20 years for someone like that to be on your team. It's hard for me to believe that Drury's done, though I know if he says he's done, he's not going to pull a Forsberg or Favre, he's done. With hockey. I watched his last regular season game, Rangers vs Devils. Drury had been almost the entire year due to injury, and coming back at the end of the season, you knew he was playing through pain, trying to get his legs under him to help for the Rangers push into the playoffs. He scored a magnificent goal, charging the net and falling to his knees to shovel one by Brodeur. Vintage Drury, half-dead coming from nowhere to do something necessary but totally unexpected, every time. 

Somewhere in the digital collection, I have a talk by the poet David Antin in which he explicates his notion of poetic line as being something extra-literary. It's part of his whole vision, of course, of poetry being something more than just "that literary form defined as having line breaks." He ends up describing a friend of his who ended up pursuing three of four drastic career and life changes, from bohemian artist to housewife to marathon runner to mathematician (I'm probably losing some of the exact facts, but that's the outline). I hope Chris Drury's next turn is equally great, and that none of us will expect it when it happens.

1 comment:

Eric Gelsinger said...

Sparts Treason!