The date: October 1st, 2002. It's about 5:30 PM, and I'm still at work, listening to the local sports radio station. The news jock is doing the half-hour update, the usual local dreck about the Steelers/Pitt football/Penn State football (aside: this is right around the time when...well, you know what), and then this little nugget slips in at the end:
"...and in NHL news, the Colorado Avalanche trade Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle to Calgary for Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond, and Jeff Shantz."
I must qualify that by saying I didn't hear about 70% of what he said, because my brain melted when I heard the words "trade" and "Chris Drury". I can safely assume the radio guy named the other four players, but I'm not sure, because at that point, a large gray fuzzy cloud had settled in my head, the kind that only comes when you get such unexpected and unwelcome news. One of my co-workers was observant enough to glance over at me, and I'm sure the look on my face is what caused him to say "Oh man...oh god, I'm so sorry." I can honestly say that it's one of the three worst moments of my sports fan life.
The only two men in the world more upset about this trade than I was.
I was born in 1977, and I grew up playing baseball, not hockey. I played from age 5 tee-ball all the way into high school, and at one point, baseball was my life. Thus, it's no surprise that I had heard of Chris Drury long before he became a star in the NHL. It was 1989, and a group of kids my own age from Trumbull, Connecticut had shocked the dominant entry from Taiwan in the Little League World Series. I don't need to re-hash the details, because it's been beaten into the ground since then that Chris Drury was the star of that team, and was the winning pitcher in that final game. Drury ended up turning to hockey after a wrist injury derailed his baseball plans, and in 1994 he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques. This excited me to no end, as I saw a contemporary of mine, a kid I could personally identify with, drafted by my favorite team. Drury went on to star at Boston University, winning the 1998 Hobey Baker award. The 1998-99 season opened with Chris Drury making the Avs roster, a training camp survivor, and it closed with him winning the Calder Trophy. Drury was the first player to win the Hobey Baker award AND the Calder Trophy, and his exploits through his rookie NHL season bore out that this kid was the real deal. Another strong performance in the 1999-2000 season cemented Drury as a part of the Avs future, and the following year he became a Stanley Cup champion. In 2001-02, Drury became a regular alternate captain, and mentally, I had pencilled him in as the next captain whenever Joe Sakic decided to hang up the skates. He was tough, he was talented, he was clutch; in short, he was everything you wanted your next captain to be. When a big goal needed scoring, Avs fans knew Chris Drury was going to be on the ice and more often than not, coming through.
Then came October 1st of 2002. Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle to Calgary for Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond, and Jeff Shantz. Pierre Lacroix and his massive ego decided that the team needed a stud defenseman to fill the hole that Ray Bourque's retirement had left, despite already having two stars on the blueline in Rob Blake and Adam Foote, in tandem with the solid Greg deVries and young Martin Skoula (who we didn't completely realize at the time was a black hole of suck). Now in fairness, Derek Morris played extremely well for Colorado, scoring 11 goals and notching 48 points in that first season, and played a smart, physical game besides. I liked Derek Morris as an Av, and I always wished him well when he left. Dean McAmmond was a place-filler (despite a two goal, first star of the game effort in a game against Pittsburgh, which always earns brownie points with me) before being moved back to Calgary later in that same season. Jeff Shantz was the first Colorado Avalanche player that I actively disliked, and Clark Griswold articulates my feelings about Jeff Shantz better than I ever could. The loss of Stephane Yelle proved a tough one to overcome, as he went to Calgary and was a valuable, dependable checker and penalty-killer for several good Flames teams in the subsequent years. For me though, it keeps coming back to Chris Drury. Drury spent one unhappy season in Calgary before being traded again, this time to Buffalo, where he spent three productive years, leading the Sabres to a President's Trophy and consecutive Eastern Conference Final appearances. He signed a massive contract with the New York Rangers, his boyhood team, and spent the remaining years of his career being underappreciated by the typically-lunatic Rangers fans before retiring this past offseason, rather than trying to hang on elsewhere.
There have been many players that have come and gone from the Avs over the years since the trade. Legends like Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic retired after Hall Of Fame careers. Rob Blake left via free agency. Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg, despite eventually returning to the Avs, were forced elsewhere after the 2004-05 lockout, and were never quite the same players. All that being said, October 1st of 2002 was the beginning of the end for the mini-dynasty the Avs had created since moving from Quebec in 1995. With Drury, the team had gone to the conference finals four consecutive times, and won a Stanley Cup. Without him, the team hasn't been out of the second round since, and their record in the second round is 2-12. I keep thinking about all the blown chances and missed opportunities: games 6 and 7 against Minnesota in 2003, both overtime losses; a 1-0 Game 3 loss to the Sharks in 2004 that could have kept the Avs in that series, an overtime loss in Game 3 to the Ducks in 2006 under similar circumstances. Chris Drury lived for those situations, came through time and again for Colorado, and Pierre Lacroix threw it away chasing after something he ended up not getting anyway. After the trade, I remember the words of John Buccigross: "Chris Drury is a leader and a winner. You don't trade a leader and a winner." He couldn't have been more right.