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The Winner
April 16, 2007
Two decades after his immortal Little League victory, CHRIS DRURY has become one of sports' greatest clutch players. Can he deliver a title to the losingest city in sports?
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April 16, 2007

The Winner

Two decades after his immortal Little League victory, CHRIS DRURY has become one of sports' greatest clutch players. Can he deliver a title to the losingest city in sports?

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That such desperation is shouted from the official heart of Buffalo, and not the wall of some sports bar, says plenty about the place of sports--and the resurgent Sabres--in the life of the city. "We think, and many people think, that the town needs to win a major sports championship," says Mayor Byron Brown. "To correct the inferiority complex in the psyche in the community."

The body blows suffered by Buffalo over the last five decades are a staple of Rust Belt lore: shuttered steel mills and empty grain silos shadowing the shores of Lake Erie; an exodus of young people in search of work; half the city's citizens drained away, taking Buffalo's status as an urban power with them. The Sabres lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1975 and '99, and in between the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls. Scott Norwood's wide-right kick in the 1991 Super Bowl and Hull's illegal goal became emblematic of Buffalo's fate: to fail or to get jobbed, to lose ignominiously, again and again. "Loss of jobs, loss of opportunity, loss of population, loss of four Super Bowls in a row, losing the Stanley Cup like we did?" Brown says. "It was a combined feeling of, We're sinking."

"This town has a lot to offer," Quinn says. "I can't stand it: Every time someone comes in, they write about how dirty it is, or how the buildings are empty. We're all working hard to fix it. But there's a sense of embarrassment and a lack of confidence. Are we as good as everybody else?"

That's why, when you visit Buffalo, you almost never bump into anyone who says he doesn't care about sports. That's why Buffalo running back Willis McGahee, recently traded to Baltimore, was a goner the moment in January that he suggested the NFL move the Bills to Toronto. That's why the official message boards at the airport scream go sabres! in midseason, why Buffalo jerseys dominate the NHL top ten list, why two groups of fans tried to pay Ruff's $10,000 NHL fine for retaliating for the savage hit Ottawa forward Chris Neil laid on Drury on Feb. 22. "What's Lindy make--$650,000?" says Deputy Mayor Steven Casey. "Here are guys making $25,000 a year showing up to give him money."

Because there is an urgency now. It has been a long time since a Buffalo team has been this good, and fans know that Drury and Briere, the team points leader, are free agents at the end of this season. The Sabres may not be able to keep both. Losing early in the playoffs--let's face it, losing at all--could send the town into a tailspin. "The Sabres and the Bills are the city," says Tim Russert, Buffalo native and host of NBC's Meet the Press. "They give it life."

Russert, Mayor Brown, most anyone in town will say that Drury is the perfect Buffalo player, an embodiment of the city's self-image: hardworking, self-sacrificing, down to earth. But Buffalonians, as MacDonald, who coached at nearby Niagara University, says, "can also feel sorry for themselves. Woe is me, Scott Norwood, Brett Hull, why does this always happen to us? Chris is the anti of that mentality. He never feels sorry for himself and his team. He doesn't look in the past, no pity parties. Nope. Next play."

That, of course, is what Buffalo is counting on. "This is it! Brother Drury is bringing us to the mountaintop!" Russert shouts. "There's a sense of mission. He has proved he knows how to win championships and he is the leader." Then he pauses.

"Let's hope," Russert says, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. "One time."

Blood on the ice: Neil bulled into Drury's left shoulder. The Sabres led the Senators 3--2 in the second period of that February game, but suddenly the score didn't matter. The force of the collision popped Drury's helmet off like the shell of a cracking walnut. Drury flew into the air, three feet above the rink surface, and nearly flipped, his skates rising for an instant above his head. His face crashed into the ice, opening a two-inch gash in his right eyebrow. He lay still a moment, concussed, tried to take a knee and fell. Blood dribbled down. The home crowd howled, Buffalo's Drew Stafford attacked Neil, the head coaches screamed at each other. After the ensuing face-off every player, including the goalies, paired up and started to swing.

No matter which Sabres player had been hit, punches would've been thrown; in hockey it's all about defending the sweater. But there's no doubt that the Buffalo response "was amplified," says then Sabres goalie Martin Biron (since traded to Philadelphia), "because it was Chris Drury lying on the ice."

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