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In July 2003 the hard-luck Buffalo franchise--still wincing over Brett Hull's skate-in-the-crease goal for Dallas that yanked the Cup away from the Sabres in 1999--had just emerged from bankruptcy. Revitalized by new owner Tom Golisano, Regier and Sabres managing general partner Larry Quinn made their first official move to upend the club's losing culture: They traded for Drury. That season the Sabres won 10 more games than the year before. Last season, despite a late plague of injuries, they came within 20 minutes of making the Stanley Cup finals. This season they set a franchise mark of 53 wins and finished with the best record in the NHL.
Many factors account for Buffalo's transformation from joke to juggernaut: Ryan Miller's emergence as one of the league's top goalies; center Daniel Briere's rise as an offensive force; management's fortuitous decision, two years before the NHL's new scoring-friendly rules kicked in, to build a team around speed and skill. The Sabres and coach Lindy Ruff produced four 30-goal scorers this season with an attack that's as tough as it is prolific. But at the center of it all is Drury, the team's co-captain and unquestioned leader, the player who sets the tone every night against opponents' top lines, the man whose r�sum� lifts this postseason to the level of high drama. Can one of sport's great winners do what no one else could? Will Drury deliver the first championship to the losingest city in America?
"If anybody can do it," says Blaise MacDonald, who helped coach Drury at BU, "Chris can."
But why? When the question is put to Drury, he can barely get the term out of the back of his throat: "Why I'm a ... a ... winner?" he says. He mentions the great programs he's been a part of, the players who've won with him. He speaks about his competitiveness. The topic makes Drury uneasy, as if examining such a thing will rob it of its power. "I'm thrilled that it happens," he says. "I'm thrilled that where I've been I've had success. I haven't won anything as a Sabre. I guess I don't know."
So let's put the pieces together, one by one. Let's start with the most underrated component of winners: love. A look at any Little League team will tell you that love in its purest athletic form--of the ball, of the action--is surprisingly rare. Kids play because their friends play or the uniforms are cool or Mom wants them outside. But in each group there's maybe one who has no choice, who must always be pounding his mitt or throwing a ball against a wall, who must simply move. Drury was that kid. His older brother Ted, who played eight years in the NHL and just finished his career in Germany, wasn't. Ted could actually sit still.
"Chris couldn't get through a meal," says Marcia Drury, his mom. "He'd take two or three bites--and then he was gone. He'd be out shooting pucks or hoops or something."
Aside from his turbocharged makeup, Drury had other advantages. His mom and his dad, John, lived in a typical middle-class neighborhood, a little more than a mile from Trumbull's Unity Park and its ball field and only two miles from the ice rink. John's career as a financial adviser at UBS, and Marcia's as a customer-service rep for a retail company, provided enough money so that the four Drury kids had equipment and time to run free, but not enough to be overindulged; when Chris was off in Chicago winning that Pee Wee hockey title, his parents stayed home to work. Still, there was a big net in the backyard to catch slap-shot pucks or baseballs hit off a tee. There was aluminum siding on the house, pocked with sports dents. Street hockey in the driveway, Wiffle ball out back, bruises and fights: One day Chris and his best friend, Ken Martin, tussled over a foul ball and each ended up with a broken nose. And always, there was Ted, five years Chris's senior, setting the example and taking Chris along. At 10 Ted would bring his little brother to take part in his hockey games and baseball clinics, and when the adults would try to step in, Ted would say, "No, no, he can do it."
Ted went first to Fairfield Prep, where he attended class wearing ankle weights under his pants. He'd practice slap shots for hours every day, Rollerblade and lift weights in a pro-style regimen none of his peers were following. Connecticut is hardly top-flight hockey territory, and Ted knew it; Chris picked up that underdog ethos too. The brother between them, Jim, also played everything and later was a center on the hockey team at Division III Lake Forest College, but there's something about that oldest brother: Follow his lead, take him down. "Chris likes to win, and that part is Ted," Marcia says. "He wanted to better Ted. He was the role model, and the thing to beat."
Still, nothing marked Chris as extraordinary until the '89 Little League World Series. For a boy to hit .527 and go 8--0 in the preliminaries and at Williamsport, to toss a crafty complete-game five-hitter in the final, to drive in two runs in that 5--2 shocker over Kaohsiung, Taiwan, seemed the perfect foundation for a lifetime of winning. Taiwan had won three straight titles, outscoring the U.S. by 43--1. Drury still remembers hearing people chanting "U-S-A!" hours before game time, the feel and noise of 40,000 people surrounding him and watching every move. Mostly, though, he still sees the cocky Taiwanese players, just before the teams paraded onto the field. "I remember how casual and loose they were, like they already had it won," Drury says. "And I remember thinking, That's not right. This is not how it's going to be."
There's a moment in the third inning. Drury, leading off first base, dives back on a throw from the catcher; Taiwan's first baseman, a full head taller, steps on Drury's left hand while laying down the tag and leaves his foot there. Drury screeches "Get off me," scrambles to his feet and shoves another Taiwan player in the chest. The fact that, as the team's star, Drury was both pudgy and tough lent the Trumbull squad an irresistible Everyman quality, and the resulting whirlwind of fame would be enough to make even the most grounded kid lose his mind. Drury found himself pitching to his idol, Don Mattingly, at Yankee Stadium, shaking hands with President George H. W. Bush, taking a limousine ride into Manhattan for his appearance on Good Morning America, throwing the first pitch of Game 2 at the '89 World Series. When, a few weeks after the win, Drury toured Fairfield Prep, an older boy asked for his autograph. It was all too weird for a 13-year-old, and as his longtime friend Matt Sather, now Prep's hockey coach, puts it, "You're going to go one of two ways: become the star and embrace that kind of attention, or go into a shell and say, 'This isn't what I'm all about.'"