Drury taps into Little League magic

WOODRIDGE, Ill. – When Chris Drury(notes) visits South Williamsport, Pa., this week he’s going to find a lot has changed since his last visit 19 years ago – one year after leading his Little League team from Trumbull, Conn., to a surprising world title.

Photo Chris Drury first tasted success during international play by winning the Little League World Series.
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The field of competition has doubled from eight to 16 teams, there’s a new baseball stadium on what used to be a parking lot adjacent to Howard J. Lamade Stadium and the accommodations for players in “The Grove” have been greatly modernized from the barrack-like structures that housed Drury & Co. circa 1989.

One thing that hasn’t changed – whether we’re talking about a group of 12-year-old amateur, wide-eyed youths or a 33-year-old accomplished pro hockey player – is the characteristic of leadership that’s displayed on the diamond or a sheet of ice.

That’s why Drury is being enshrined in the Little League Hall of Excellence, the reason for his trek back to the central Pennsylvania hamlet, where as an average-size pitcher he kept heavily favored Taiwan off-balance and was among the team’s hitting stars during a 5-2 victory 20 years to the day on Wednesday.

“It’s where, at a young age, I gained a lot of confidence,” Drury said last week while taking part in the U.S. Olympic hockey orientation camp. “It was a thrill, to accomplish what we did on a big-time stage. It was so innocent at the time. We didn’t really realize what we had accomplished.”

Drury perks up at the opportunity to travel back in time, to recall memories of spending a magical summer with 13 players and two coaches from the same small bedroom community known previously for rural agriculture, mining and manufacturing. He wasn’t the biggest kid in the tournament, and certainly not the hardest thrower. The international champions from Taiwan had won three straight World Series titles, and were considered nearly invincible even as an eye of doubt was annually cast at the accuracy of their birth certificates.

“Like anything in life, some things seem a long time ago and others like just yesterday,” Drury said. “That just didn’t seem that long ago.”

Little League Baseball appears to have streamlined the age-eligibility inconsistencies of the past, save for Danny Almonte of course. Domestic teams appear more on equal footing with their foreign rivals, especially teams representing Asia and Latin America. Drury doesn’t get into what still might have been an uneven playing field in the late 1980s, but no one will argue that it took a large amount of intestinal fortitude to believe the Taiwanese could be tamed.

Photo Chris Drury scored 23 goals and 56 points, third most during the regular season for the Rangers.
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It’s with a coincidental feeling that Drury and his U.S. hockey compatriots forge on toward the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where the Americans will be underdogs against the Czech Republic, Sweden, Russia and host Canada. Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. team, continues to say not one dime will be bet on his team to win, something of a ploy to relish the non-favorites’ role.

“I’m certainly not going to disagree with anything he says, but when the puck drops anyone can win, that’s the great thing about sports,” Drury said.

Again, flash back to Aug. 26, 1989, and that’s exactly what happened to another underdog Drury was leading. And the fans were chanting “USA! USA!” that day, even if it only read “East” across the front of Drury’s baseball uniform. He won’t hear nearly as many similar chants when he’s wearing his nation’s colors north of the border.

“Playing in Canada we’re certainly not going to have a lot of fans pulling for us,” he said. “But sometimes that brings the best out of teams, so I hope it brings the best out of us.”

Drury also missed two baseball practices in order to help his Pee Wee youth hockey team win a national title in April of 1989, a preview of bigger things to come in the sport. Drury chose hockey over baseball once he reached Boston University, and after winning a national title as a freshman he capped an outstanding collegiate career by winning the Hobey Baker trophy in 1998 as the nation’s top Division I hockey player.

Drury’s NHL career started with a bang by scoring 20 goals and 44 points to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1998-99 with Colorado. And then he lifted the Stanley Cup when the Avalanche won it all in 2001. All the while Drury was building on his reputation as a leader and big-game performer – he had 26 goals in his first 80 career playoff games.

Now, as captain of the New York Rangers, Drury eyes a U.S. Olympic roster spot with the realization coach Ron Wilson and Burke are looking as much at the intangibles he brings as goals and points. Heck, Drury brings plenty of Olympic experience to the table. He was a member of the U.S. silver-medal winners in Salt Lake City in 2002, and on the non-medaling American during 2006 in Torino, Italy.

“In some ways I feel like I’m 22 and one of the young guys but clearly I’m not,” Drury said. “But we’re going through a transition phase. It’s good to see some of the young players and USA Hockey is doing a good job of bringing these guys along.”

International roster stalwarts such as Keith Tkachuk(notes), Brian Leetch and Jeremy Roenick(notes) are not among the current pool of American candidates. And at the recently-concluded U.S. camp, veterans were paired with youngsters. Drury roomed with Joe Pavelski(notes), the 25-year-old center of the San Jose Sharks from Plover, Wis.

Photo Chris Drury says chemistry is key to the U.S. coming together as a team and having success.
(US Presswire)

“I think initially chemistry is such a big thing,” Drury said. “Not only the first two weeks or the first two games but everyone has to get along; it’s something that needs to build day-in and day-out so when you hit the medal round you’re firing on all cylinders.”

Those same leadership skills witnessed by a national viewing audience when Drury had barely turned 13 are the same that the U.S. is counting on. Burke talked specifically about those characteristics in terms of Drury, who is likely competing for his last shot at the Olympics since it’s doubtful the NHL will participate in the next Games.

“I think the leadership group is more important than who wears the ‘C’,” Burke said. “We were fortunate enough to win a championship in Anaheim. We didn’t put it all on Scott Niedermayer(notes), we had a leadership group and that to me is how teams are successful.

“I think it’s vital, I don’t care if it’s 17 days or 82 games,” Burke added. “Leadership is critical and, yes, we’ll identify it. And yes, we’ll start leaning on them right away.”

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009