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One minute to go. A booming voice in Mellon Arena announces this, and the delirious crowd roars. Really, can a March night get any better? The fans arrived buzzing with the news that their beloved Penguins had been saved when a last-minute deal for a new arena locked the NHL franchise into Pittsburgh for the next 30 years. Then Penguins great, team co-owner and now savior Mario Lemieux walked onto the ice and declared how proud he was that the Pens "will remain right here in Pittsburgh where they belong!" And then the game: swift and furious, score after score, months of tension dissolving in the din. Now the inspired team and its dazzling star, Sidney Crosby, hold a 4--3 lead over the Eastern Conference--leading Buffalo Sabres; now the old building shakes with civic love and joy and the adrenaline rush that comes from fans knowing they'll be able to say, decades on, that they were there for that historic scene. A banner declares, IT'S A GREAT DAY FOR HOCKEY!
What opponent could withstand such an emotional landslide? Truth be told, the Sabres' job this evening is to roll over, give Pittsburgh its well-deserved funfest and gracefully take the loss--Oh, we ran into a buzz saw tonight.
Yet there's a problem. Buffalo is stuck in a season-high three-game losing streak. That needs to stop. Then there's the matter of Sabres center Chris Drury: pure poison for a moment like this. He's a soft-spoken, camera-shy, shortish guy who time and again has proved impervious to the pressures that make others want to hide; once, when his coach at Boston University, the legendary Jack Parker, asked after a particularly harrowing game whether he had been nervous, Drury, a junior, looked up and said quietly, "Oh, I never get nervous."
"I don't know anybody like him," says Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. Mike Eruzione, the 1980 Olympic hockey star who as an assistant at BU coached Drury, says, "He's not superskilled. He just wins."
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. And Drury is only 30.
"You want a goal, you're in overtime--you want him," says the 37-year-old Sakic, who holds the record for OT playoff goals, with seven. "He loves that time. His level of play rises." Drury isn't the only one in the NHL whose heart rate slows at such crucial moments, of course; he ranked second this season in game-winners, with nine. "But if you do a poll [of players, asking] who you'd want in that situation," Sakic says, "his would be the first name to come up. He's done it so often."
So those who know, wait. That game in Pittsburgh is nationally televised, so when the announcer on TV echoes the man in Mellon Arena and says, "Final minute of play here," the long-suffering natives lining bars along Buffalo's Elmwood strip pay attention. Hockey fans in Trumbull, Boston and Denver don't change the channel. And in a condominium not far from Fenway Park, a 31-year-old man named Travis Roy, pecking at his computer keyboard with a 14-inch stick held in his teeth, stops. He is paralyzed from the neck down, but there's a patch of life in his right biceps, just enough for Roy to move his right hand atop the joystick on his electric wheelchair. The weight of his hand depresses the stick. Roy jerks his arm back. He backs the chair up, then angles it slightly to the right, giving him a full view of the TV screen.
Let's see. That's how the thought drops into Roy's head this time. Let's see if Chris is going to do it again.
What makes a winner? Considering that this is sport's central question, the one agonized over by coaches, general managers, owners, parents and fans, considering how winners such as Yogi Berra and Michael Jordan are still revered, it's remarkable that even those who wear the label find the question difficult to answer. After an initial stab at familiar terms--luck, confidence, hard work--there comes the flutter of ums, a pause and then surrender: "I can't explain it," Sakic says of Drury. "I can't explain what he does."
Or in the words of Scotty Bowman, who won the Stanley Cup nine times as a head coach and, with the Red Wings, fell victim to Drury's overtime game-winner in Game 2 of the '02 Western Conference finals, "It's hard to describe. We had one in Detroit with [Steve] Yzerman; they're not big guys. You look at them game in, game out--and you still don't know how they can do it."