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Drury embraces limelight again on special night

BOSTON – For more than 20 years, Chris Drury couldn’t escape being Chris Drury. The spotlight that shined on him after winning the Little League World Series never went away. It followed him to college, the NHL and the Olympics. It accompanied him to the mall, the airport and the grocery store.

When his hockey career ended in 2011, Drury finally found the escape hatch. He issued his retirement through a press release and disappeared. Even his best friends couldn’t find him for months at a time. They’d hear whispers that he was around, only to find out he was long gone.

“You know, I needed it,” Drury said Thursday. “It was a long career and kind of being somewhat in the spotlight since I was 12 years old. It was a much-needed break and escape from it. I just really wanted to have my time and my focus and my energy on my family.”

For the last four years, Drury was simply a father and husband who occasionally made pizzas on the side.

“For me, there was so much focus on my schedule, my routine, all the little nuances of a season: eat at this time, sleep at this time,” Drury said. “At the end it was so focused on that that I felt bad. Having three kids now, the focus has to get off my day-to-day preparations. The focus had to be on their life.

“It was a good time, and it was time well-spent. And I’ll never get it back, right? They’re only that age once.”

The family – wife Rory, son Luke (10) and daughters Dylan (12) and Kelly (5) – returned their focus to Drury on Thursday. They celebrated alongside the 39-year-old as he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

“There’s so many deserving players before me, and to be side by side with them now is a huge thrill,” Drury said at the ceremony in Boston’s Seaport District. “The game was so fun and so good to me.”

Drury left a legacy of pride, determination and winning at nearly all of his hockey stops. He represented the United States at eight major international events, including the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics. He helped the Americans earn silver medals in 2002 and 2010.

The Connecticut native is the only person to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player (Boston University, 1998) and follow it up with the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie (Colorado, 1999). He helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 2001 while scoring 11 goals in 23 postseason games.

He arrived in Buffalo via trade during the summer of 2003. His life changed. So did the Sabres. “To say it was a special time would be an understatement,” Drury said.

The Sabres had just emerged from a loss-laden bankruptcy. He teamed with Daniel Briere to transform the team into a contender that captured the attention and hearts of Western New York sports fans. Buffalo reached back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007.

“Coming where we came from in the back of the pack with a whole new roster to the lockout year to the Presidents’ Trophy was just a terrific ride,” Drury said.

He played 234 regular-season games during his three seasons in Buffalo, recording 85 goals, 104 assists and 189 points. He led the team during his stay with 38 power-play goals, six short-handed tallies and 16 game-winners. He added 17 goals, 31 points and four game-winners during 34 playoff games.

“I’m the first one to admit that he taught me a lot,” Briere, who shared co-captaincy honors with Drury, said during the Sabres’ visit to Philadelphia this season. “I learned how to become a pro. I learned from him how to take my game to the next level, how to be a guy that wanted to make a difference.”

Drury spent his final four seasons with the New York Rangers before retiring because of a knee injury. He finished his NHL career with 255 goals and 615 points in 892 games, plus 47 goals (including 17 game-winners) and 89 points in 135 playoff appearances.

The numbers pale in comparison to the experiences.

“Just the friendships I made and the bond you have throughout a season and a career with players that I still see to this day, that’s what I remember and what’s always so special to me,” Drury said.

Still looking young enough to play, Drury reflected on his start and how much his family influenced him.

“I remember having double runners on and not wanting to come off the ice and the ponds in Trumbull, Conn.,” he said. “I was so lucky to have two older brothers before me, and I think even if I did want to come home they weren’t letting me. There was nowhere else that we would go in the winter. That was our spot, a winterland of ice, and it just became our home away from home.”

Drury still lives in Connecticut, not far from the New York border. He and three friends from the 1989 Little League team own a highly regarded pizza franchise that recently opened its fourth restaurant. He resurfaced from his seclusion this summer, accepting a job as the Rangers’ director of player development.

“I purposely stepped away from the game when I ended my career,” Drury said. “Now I’m back working with the Rangers and enjoying every minute of it and just trying to do that job as best I can.”

“I’ve really enjoyed being back with the organization and in the game. I’ve seen so many different games already this year and interacted with so many different players from Europe to the American League to the East Coast League to college to NHL. Every moment I’m learning something new. It’s just that kind of role where I can’t wait till tomorrow.”

Being back in Boston allowed him to reflect on the past and show the sense of humor that endeared him to his teammates. He holds the Boston University record for most goals, one that will stand because a certain center has left school.

“Well, I was pushing for Jack Eichel to sign and turn pro,” Drury said, “so that kept my record safe.”