BY: Bruce Berlet
While on a terrific reunion of my wife’s family in suburban Baltimore/Washington over the weekend, I got word of the retirement of one of the greatest winners in sports history.
Trumbull native Chris Drury couldn’t find another job after being bought out by the New York Rangers after three years as team captain. It likely had a lot to do with injuries that ruined his final season, forcing him to miss 63 of 87 games, more than in his previous 11 NHL seasons combined.
“Throughout his career, Chris Drury was always a great competitor, a tremendous leader and teammate, and the heart-and-soul type of player that every team would love to have,” Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said in a statement Friday. “His commitment, determination and will to win were apparent each and every day. Those characteristics will have a lasting impact on all those who were fortunate enough to learn from Chris over his 12 years in the National Hockey League.”
In vintage Drury style, his retirement was announced in a press release from the NHL Players Association that said he would be unavailable to discuss his decision. No lavish, emotion-filled press conference. No television appearances. Not even a quote from Drury. The man who grew up a Rangers fan just slid out of a spotlight that he never wanted or enjoyed but could never shake, even as his numbers on Broadway declined.
Drury, who turned 35 on Saturday, was as low key as he was known as Captain Clutch for his grit, dedication, leadership and uncanny ability to rise to the occasion while becoming one of the most decorated athletes in Connecticut history, starting as an undefeated pitcher and key hitter for the Little League World Series champions in 1989. Two months later, Drury threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 2 of the 1989 World Series and then met President George H.W. Bush and appeared on “Good Morning America” in New York.
Before the Little League World Series win, Drury played many sports simultaneously, winning a national pee wee championship with his hockey team from Bridgeport the same year. Along with older brother Ted, he attended Fairfield Prep, was co-captain of the varsity hockey team his senior year, receiving Connecticut all-state honors for his efforts. Chris and Ted are the only players in Fairfield Prep hockey history to have their numbers retired. The No. 18, which they both wore, hangs above the school’s home rink at the Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport in the old rink (currently known as the Stadium Rink after renovations that added another rink), as well as in the lobby outside the locker room complex at Fairfield Prep. Chris’ name and number are also painted above the entrance doors to the Classic arena at the same ice rink.
As a freshman at Fairfield Prep, he and his brother helped lead the team to the state Division I hockey title. Then at Boston University, Chris won the NCAA Division I hockey title as a freshman in 1995 and the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player as a senior in 1995. His 113 career goals are still a Terriers record, but he also was 10 feet from Travis Roy when Roy was paralyzed after crashing into the boards 11 seconds into his first collegiate shift. Drury was the first to Roy’s side, was thrust into a role beyond his years dealing publicly with a calamity that literally struck close to him, and the two have been friends ever since. Drury helps host a golf tournament every summer to benefit the Travis Roy Foundation, which has distributed more than $2.5 million in individual grants and to research projects and rehabilitation institutions across North America to help spinal cord injury survivors and to fund research into a cure. Drury once said not a day goes by without his thinking of Roy, who is now a terrific motivational speaker, author and activist.
While at BU, Drury also was the third round pick of the former Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL draft, which fittingly was held in Hartford. He promptly won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year in 1999, and two years later, he had 11 goals and 16 assists as he won his only Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche, which had relocated from Quebec.
Drury had 255 goals, including 47 winners, and 360 assists in 892 NHL regular-season games with the Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres and Rangers. He was even more clutch in the playoffs, where 17 of his 47 goals in 135 games were winners. Drury also played for the United States in the 2002, ’06 and ’10 Winter Olympics, winning two silver medals and one bronze.
Many questioned U.S. general manager Brian Burke’s decision to choose Drury for the 2010, but the former Hartford Whalers GM said he selected the Rangers captain for his experience and success with the national team.
“We picked Chris Drury because he’s Chris Drury,” Burke said at the time.
But Drury’s career ended on a downer thanks to a twice-broken finger and arthroscopic knee surgery last season. Still, in typical Drury fashion, Drury returned for the regular-season finale and scored his lone goal in a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils that helped the Rangers clinch a playoff spot. But that was about the only highlight for Drury, who had only five points and then added an assist in Rangers’ first-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals.
Drury was let go by the Rangers on June 29 when he was given $3.333 million for the buyout that ended the five-year, $35.25 million deal he signed with New York on July 1, 2007 after leaving the Sabres as a free agent.
“It was a great honor and privilege to be a New York Ranger for the past four years, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to fulfill that childhood dream,” Drury told Rangers beat writer Larry Brooks of the New York Post at the time. “The Rangers are a first-class organization with great people in the hockey, public relations, team services and community relations departments.
“I would also like to thank Ranger fans. They always inspired me to do the best I could in whatever role I was asked to play. Playing before them in the Garden was a thrill of a lifetime. I wish all the fans and the entire Ranger organization the best of luck in the future.”
Locally, the summer of 1989 was unforgettable for Drury as he hit .527 and won all eight games that he pitched in the Little League tournament, including complete-game five-hitter in a 5-2 victory over seemingly invincible Taiwan in the final in which he also had two-run single.
In the Hartford Courant’s 1999 series recognizing the top 25 Connecticut athletes in the century, Drury was ranked 24th. But he likely would be higher now because he was only 23 at the time and has barely started his NHL career.
“It’s hard to absorb,” said Drury, who was a right wing with the Avalanche. “It’s a huge, huge honor. A century is a long time.”
So, too, is winning the Little Series World Series.
“At the time, it was a big thing to win a couple of games in the state tournament,” Drury said. “For us, it was a big deal to win the East Regional in Bristol. When we saw the guys from Cherry Hills (N.J.), they were 5-foot-10; they were huge. We beat them 18-6.
“We get to Williamsport (Pa.), and there’s no way we should hang in there against a team of (suspected) 14- and 15-year-olds. (Hall of Fame pitcher) Jim Palmer, who was working for ABC, came into our dugout before the game. He says, ‘Guys, don’t worry if you start to lose bad, it’s OK. And the guys are saying, ‘Who are you? Thanks, Jim, see you later.”
See you in the winner’s circle, as Trumbull beat out 6,990 other teams worldwide. It seemed only fitting that Drury announced the end of his career while this year’s Little League World Series is being played in Williamsport.
Drury and Scott Gomez never nearly meshed with the Rangers, who were led by Jaromir Jagr when they arrived together. Gomez lasted only two seasons before he and former Hartford Wolf Pack players Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto were traded to the Montreal Canadiens for former Yale center Chris Higgins, former Springfield Pics defenseman Doug Janik, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started last season with the Connecticut Whale before being promoted on Jan. 3, and Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko.
The Rangers used the cap space created by the buyout of Drury to sign prized free-agent center Brad Richards to a nine-year, $60 million deal. Drury could have earned his full $5 million for next season if he chose to apply for a medical exception because of his injured left knee and it was determined he wasn’t able to play.
It isn’t known if Drury is healthy enough to continue his career if he chose to, but it is known that he was one of the biggest winners everywhere at anytime. He was named the Rangers’ 25th captain on Oct. 3, 2008, and in 2009-10, he led all NHL forwards in blocked shots (97) and was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA), awarded annually to “the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Despite missing 57 games because of injury last season, Drury – as usual – worked overtime to get back in the lineup for the season finale and the playoffs. He has 47 goals and 42 assists in 135 career playoff games with the Rangers, Avalanche and Sabres. He’s tied for fourth in the NHL all-time with four playoff overtime goals and ranks sixth among active NHL players in playoff goals. He has participated in the postseason nine times and advanced to at least the conference finals five times, winning it all a decade ago.
Besides his three Olympic appearances, Drury participated in the World Junior Championships in 1996, the World Championships in 1997, 1998 and 2004 and the World Cup of Hockey in 2004. To say Chris Drury has had a star-studded and wildly winning career would be one of the great understatements in sports history. Drury never took off a shift, was fearless blocking shots and a good influence on young and old players alike. He captained two teams, the Sabres and Rangers, and his lasting legacy in New York will be the mentoring of youngsters such as former Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and All-Star Marc Staal.
So who should be his successor as Rangers’ captain? Some think Richards, but the choice here is homegrown right wing Callahan, a seeming Drury clone. Callahan, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2004, has a better scoring touch than Drury and an equally strong work ethic and ability to lead by example. Callahan would be the first homegrown Rangers captain since Cheshire native and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch and earned a hearty endorsement from Brooks.
“Brad Richards will skate into camp (on Sept. 15) as coach John Tortorella’s favorite son, everyone gets that,” Brooks wrote. “But there’s no need to memorialize the relationship by giving the Rangers’ captaincy to the 31-year-old center who played the first 10 years of his career off Broadway.
“The captaincy of this team of Bluebloods should go to a Blueblood. The captaincy should go to Ryan Callahan, who has been an alternate captain the last two seasons, who served as de-facto captain much of last season in Chris Drury’s absence and who is the personification of the Black-and Blueshirt mentality that identified the 2010-11 Rangers.
“A homegrown captain for a homegrown team.
“Richards will lead by example. Richards will be leaned on by Tortorella. But Broadway Brad not only doesn’t need the captaincy, he hasn’t earned it here the way Callahan has. Beyond that, there’s no need to stamp the scarlet letter on Richards, whose relationship with the coach already is on a different plane than everyone else’s on the team.”
Well said, and we’ll all find out if Tortorella agrees at training camp as he said he won’t name Drury’s successor until then.
PRO, COLLEGE STARS AT CAMP AT CHAMPIONS SKATING CENTER
Whale/Rangers center Kris Newbury and former Wolf Pack goalie Matt Zaba are among more than 30 players participating in the sixth annual Pete Asadourian Pro Hockey Camp on Monday through Friday at the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell.
Asadourian is the owner and founder of Future Fitness Sport Specific Training in the Champions Skating Center and is hosting the high-level players from around the country and Canada who are participating in four days of intense strength training and on-ice work before a scrimmage open to the public Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Champions’ lower rink. A $2 donation will be collected at the door, and players will be available for autographs before and after the game, with some of their memorabilia and other items part of a raffle.
The goal of the camp is to focus on the development of their strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, mental toughness and overall conditioning to prepare for the coming season. Yale coach Keith Allain and South Windsor High School coach Neil Rodman are the on-ice instructors. Allain, who played at Yale in 1976-80, has also been goalie coach with the Capitals, St. Louis Blues, the AHL’s Worcester IceCats and the 1992 and 2006 U.S. Olympic teams.
Other players scheduled to attend include Bolton native Ron Hainsey, a first-round pick (13th overall) by Montreal in 2000 who has played 488 NHL games with the Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers, who have moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba; Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, the son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald who led the AHL with 42 goals last season with the Oklahoma City Barons before signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 1; South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore, who captained the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup finals his spring; and Anaheim Ducks center Nick Bonino. Newbury was the Whale’s leading scorer last season with 17 goals and a team-high 44 assists in 69 games and had one assist in 11 games with the Rangers. Zaba, who played with the Wolf Pack in 2008-09 and 2009-10, was 25-12-0 with a 2.09 goals-against average and .931 save percentage with HC Balzano of the Italian Elite League last season.
DEVILS’ ZAJAC OUT 4-6 WEEKS
The New Jersey Devils will start the season without No. 1 center Travis Zajac, who will miss the first six weeks after surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon. Zajac, who was third on the Devils in scoring last season with 13 goals and 31 assists, sustained the injury last Wednesday during an off-ice training workout.
“He’ll be in a cast for a week and then he’ll be in a walking boot right after that,” Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told the Bergen (N.J.) Record. “Then, it’s the healing process, which takes around three months.”
Possible replacements on the top line include Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias. Zajac, the Devils’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2004, has 89 goals and 160 assists) in 408 NHL games. The injury means his consecutive games steak will end at 401. He hasn’t missed a game since Oct. 24, 2006. … Former Wolf Pack left wing Chad Wiseman was among 12 players signed by the Devils on Monday. Wiseman, 30, rejoined the Devils’ organization last season and had 16 goals and 28 assists in 48 games with the Albany Devils. The 10-year veteran has appeared in 530 AHL games, recording 163 goals and 173 assists. He also has one goal and one assist in nine NHL games with the San Jose Sharks, who chose him in the eighth round in 2000, and the Rangers. … Veteran forward Ethan Moreau signed a one-year, $600,000 contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Moreau had one goal and five assists in 37 games with Columbus last season. He had spent parts of 11 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers before joining the Blue Jackets and was named captain of the Oilers in October 2007. He was a first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1994 and dealt to Edmonton in a seven-player trade in March 1999. … Nearly 1,000 people attended the funeral of NHL forward Rick Rypien on Saturday in Blairmore, Alberta. Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa was a pallbearer, and others attending included former Rangers and Wolf Pack forward Manny Malhotra who is now with Vancouver, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis and Rypien’s cousin, former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien. Rick Rypien, 27, who signed a contract with the Jets earlier this summer after six seasons with the Canucks, was found in his home in nearby Coleman, Alberta, last Monday night. Rypien had struggled with depression, and police said his death was not suspicious. He is the second NHL player to die in the offseason. Rangers left wing/enforcer Derek Boogaard died May 13 after an accidental overdose of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodon. … Former Whalers and New Haven Senators wing Blair Atcheynum was one of three recent inductees into the Moose Jaw Warriors and Legends Hall of Fame. Other inducted by the Western Hockey League team were Derek Kletzel and Rob Carnie. … The Norfolk Admirals announced Monday that the team’s training camp and three preseason games will be in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the home of the new St. John’s IceCaps. The Admirals will open camp in St. John’s on Sept. 27, and after two days of practice will play three preseason games against the IceCaps, who are affiliated with the Jets. The Admirals will travel to Norfolk on Oct. 3 to prepare for their season opener Oct. 7 against the visiting Charlotte Checkers. The IceCaps are bringing pro hockey back to St. John’s after a six-year hiatus. Prior to the IceCaps, the St. John’s Maple Leafs were members of the AHL from 1991 to 2005. The Admirals, who joined the AHL in 2000, have never played in Newfoundland.