The Montreal Gazette's Red Fisher, the 72-year-old dean of North
American hockey writers, abides by a self-imposed rule: He never
talks to rookies. The policy, regarded with amused admiration by
his reverent peers, implies a shortcoming in the players Fisher
eschews, as if they were not vested members of the NHL. Like a
401(k) manager, Fisher doesn't start working with those players
until one year after their date of hire.
That approach makes some sense. Rookies on good NHL teams are
usually bit players trying to learn their way around the league.
There are exceptions, however, such as Colorado Avalanche
first-year forwards Milan Hejduk and Chris Drury, who combined
for 92 points in the regular season and who are about as raw as
a steak left on a hot grill for an hour. "Rookies?" says Dallas
Stars defenseman Darryl Sydor of Hejduk and Drury. "They don't
look like rookies to me. They're guys you have to stop."
Entering the Western Conference finals, which were tied at one
game apiece after Colorado's 2-1 victory over the Stars in Game
1 last Saturday and Dallas's 4-2 win on Monday night, Hejduk and
Drury had combined for five game-winning goals in Colorado's
eight postseason victories. Three of the goals were by the
23-year-old Hejduk (pronounced HAY-duk), and two came in
overtime in the first round against the San Jose Sharks. Without
the first-year phenoms the Avalanche probably wouldn't have
advanced to Round 2.
Drury, 22, spent his childhood summers playing Little League in
Trumbull, Conn., (yes, he's that Chris Drury) and Hejduk spent
his formative years playing tennis in Sstnad-Laberm in the Czech
Republic, but Colorado regards them equally. That's not just
because they are about the same size (Drury is 5'10", 180
pounds; Hejduk is 5'11", 185) and were late picks in the 1994
draft (Drury went 72nd overall, Hejduk 87th) and are among the
three finalists (along with forward Marian Hossa of the Ottawa
Senators) for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, but also
because they are far savvier than NHL rookies usually are.
Even though Hejduk, who has been playing on a line in the
playoffs with All-Stars Joe Sakic and Theo Fleury, led NHL
rookies with 48 points in the regular season (14 goals and 34
assists), Drury's higher goal total (20) and hard-checking style
make him a slight favorite to win the Calder. Hejduk, however,
has been the more powerful force in the postseason. He had six
playoff goals and 11 points at week's end and had shown a
tenacity rarely possessed by lanky young players fresh off the
rinks of Europe. Handling the puck in the corner with the score
tied 1-1 in the third period of Game 1 on Saturday, Hejduk was
pushed and bumped and whacked by Sydor. Hejduk shook off the
defenseman, kept control of the puck and ultimately set up a
scoring chance for Fleury in the slot. "He hasn't been
intimidated all year," Avalanche director of player personnel
Michel Goulet says of Hejduk. "I saw that [confidence] in the
Czech Republic last year, and when I saw the way he handled the
puck, like top guys in the NHL, I said, Holy moly, this guy is
Hejduk, the son of a hockey coach, was on skates and honing his
moves by age four. At 17 he left home to play for prestigious
Pardubice in the Czech Republic, and a year later Colorado
drafted him. After he broke out for 45 points in 48 games for
Pardubice last season and played in four matches on the
gold-medal-winning Czech Republic Olympic squad in Nagano (he
was the team's youngest player), the Avalanche invited him to
training camp last September. Within days, Hejduk had earned a
spot next to Sakic and looked as if he'd been in the league for
years. "I'm comfortable on this team," Hejduk says. "It's a
great hockey school for me."
He has also taken classes to learn English and improved his
comprehension by demanding that his roommate on the road, Adam
Deadmarsh, explain the meaning of everything Hejduk sees and
hears on TV. Deadmarsh can attest that Hejduk is still adjusting
to the life of a big-time pro athlete. "One morning I got up and
said, 'Hey, let's get some breakfast,'" says Deadmarsh. "He
said, 'I've got breakfast right here.' Then he ate a pepperoni
sub he'd taken from the airplane the night before."
In a dressing room with familiar mugs such as Fleury's, Claude
Lemieux's and Patrick Roy's, Hejduk is still relatively unknown.
Drury is much more recognizable, though when you look at him you
can't help but flash back to the kid with chubby cheeks who
stared intently from under the bill of his baseball cap. Ten
years ago this summer Drury pitched Trumbull to victory in the
Little League World Series, and even if he gets a hat trick in
the Stanley Cup finals he might still be best remembered as the
12-year-old New Englander who conquered Taiwan.
He has achieved plenty since. At Boston University, Drury was a
finalist for the Hobey Baker Award three years running and won
it in 1998. After Drury's final college game, Terriers coach
Jack Parker, who has been coaching BU since 1973, said, "There
have been a lot of great players, but there's never been anyone
who combined talent, effort and the ability to be a great
teammate the way Chris Drury has."
Drury is far from arrogant, but succeeding early in life has
made him confident. When asked if he ever felt unnerved playing
next to stars such as Colorado's all-world center Peter
Forsberg, Drury says, "Yes, but only for about a half hour on my
first day." Which helps explain why he played so boldly in the
preseason and forced Avalanche coach Bob Hartley to give him a
prominent role. Drury has played all three forward positions on
all four lines.
The Colorado brass often praises its two rookie stars as one,
pointing out that together the pair has given the team depth.
The one thing no one will do is pick a Calder winner. "Maybe
they'll share it," says general manager Pierre Lacroix. "They
should each keep the trophy for six months. From my point of
view that would make the most sense."