Chris Drury broke into the NHL in 1998-99 and by the time he won his first Stanley Cup two years later, he was already one of my favourite players. He was such a determined little guy who always seemed to come up when it counted. Wendel Clark was practically a god in my house in my early years, so it’s easy to see the draw to Drury.
He won the Calder Trophy for best rookie in 1999, beating out fellow Colorado Avalanche Milan Hejduk (who would later lead the NHL with 50 goals in 2003) and Ottawa Senator Marian Hossa (who would later take out Bryan Berard’s eye… no, I’m not bitter). Drury’s 44-point freshman year may seem a little light to newer fans, but you have to remember the landscape of the late 90s NHL: Hejduk led all rookies in 1999 with 48 points. Woof. In four years with the Avalanche, Drury scored 85 goals and 222 points, adding 25 goals and 50 points in the playoffs.
Those Avalanche teams were stacked to all hell. As good as Drury was (he quickly picked up a reputation for being clutch; of those 25 playoff goals in a Colorado jersey, 11 were game-winners), he was permanently slotted behind Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg at centre. Forsberg was frequently hurt so Drury got plenty of chances, but you knew he wouldn’t stay in Denver forever. He dropped from 65 to 46 points in 2001-02 (though for reference, Jaromir Jagr led the league in 2001 with 121 points; Jarome Iginla led in 2002 with 96, and Jagr tied for fifth with 79) and that pretty much sealed the deal. By the start of the next season, Drury was off to Calgary. This began one of the few times in my life that I actually liked the Calgary Flames, a one-year feat for which Drury was solely responsible. It didn’t last; the Flames were looking to build off of Iginla’s monster 01-02, and when he fell back and Drury put up only 53 points, Drury was shipped off to Buffalo.
In 03-04, Drury’s first year with Buffalo, he fell under the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. After the lockout, however, Drury became a Buffalo legend, scoring 67 goals in two seasons and co-captaining the Sabres back to relevancy for the first time since Dominik Hasek was in town. But then came the summer of 2007 and The Contract. Drury signed a gigantic five-year, $35.25 million contract with the team he grew up cheering, the New York Rangers. The Rangers also signed fellow midget Scott Gomez to an even bigger deal, and Drury’s old Buffalo co-captain, Daniel Briere (yet another tiny forward – Gomez is actually the tallest of the three) left the Sabres for the Philadelphia Flyers. Drury’s contract seemed especially exorbitant on paper, considering that he had never hit 70 points in a season, but that’s just how valued his leadership and two-way abilities were.
Drury got to fulfill dreams with the Rangers: he captained his childhood team while wearing no. 23 for his childhood idol, Don Mattingly. The Rangers have been a team of status for my entire lifetime; even when they were bad, that’s where the stars played, and the brightest stars wore the captain’s “C”. Messier, Leetch, Jagr and then Drury. Drury even captained the United States team in the 2010 Olympics, where they won the silver medal.
But New York was the beginning of the end for Chris Drury. He fell just shy of 60 points in both his first two seasons as the Rangers struggled to find roles for him and Gomez. Then the wheels came off in 2009-10; even as he was being named captain of Team USA, he was being demoted to the fourth line in New York at age 33. Seeing hockey players fall off the face of the Earth in their early-30s used to be commonplace and sometimes still is, but Drury was different and it felt weird to watch him struggle for the first time. Last season he was plagued with knee injuries and played only 24 games, scoring five points. The Rangers bought out the remaining season of The Contract in July and today Drury announced his retirement.
I guess time eventually gets the best of all of us.