- Lindsay Berra
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Chris Drury and Scott Gomez stand warily in the crosswalk on Eighth Avenue between Madison Square Garden and Manhattan's massive James A. Farley Post Office, the sticks and skates slung over their shoulders conspicuously out of place.
It's late summer, after all, and only an especially observant bystander would notice the thick chests and forearms of these two smallish men (5-foot-10 and 5-foot-11, respectively) and mark them as pro athletes. They feel out of place too, unaccustomed to sporting the tools of their trade on city streets, even for photo shoots. Very quickly, the Walk signal turns to Don't, and anxious drivers honk as they forge ahead. Bigger egos might continue to pose, but the two newest New York Rangers, unsure if the force of their celebrity will hold off Gotham cabs, scurry back to the sidewalk.
They shouldn't worry in this neighborhood. Since the two free agents signed with New York, on July 1, the Garden faithful have been in a frenzy of anticipation: More than 96 percent of last year's season ticket-holders have re-upped for 2007-08, and those single-game tickets that were available sold out in an hour. And the feeling is mutual for these two American-born and -breds.
Says Gomez: "New York is the capital of the world."
Maybe so, but both players took a long time getting to the Big Apple, close as they sometimes came. Gomez, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, has been gazing longingly across the Hudson River from New Jersey since joining the Devils as a rookie, in 1999. Drury, raised in nearby Trumbull, Conn., grew up idolizing the Rangers but spent the first nine years of his career in Colorado, Calgary and Buffalo. So the 31-year-old Drury, known as hockey's Mr. Clutch even before he won a Stanley Cup with the Avs in 2001, and Gomez, a speedy and crafty 27-year-old with two rings of his own (2000, 2003), fairly jumped to sign with the Blueshirts the first day of free agency.
The Rangers are praying that all the hardware will add just the right amount of steel to a club that was close but not quite there last season. If New York's six-game loss to Drury's Sabres in the Eastern semis last spring was a missed opportunity, the signing of the two centers is a golden one for the team -- and, perhaps as important, for the NHL. Although league officials would rather eat a puck than admit to rooting for the red, white and blue, a successful Rangers Cup run would thrust hockey back into the spotlight in the biggest media market in the world at just the right time. Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals on NBC last June posted a 1.1 Nielsen rating, matching the lowest for a prime-time broadcast in NBC history. Major-market mania could only help heal the NHL's buzz blues.
Of course, the pair didn't come cheap -- seven years and $51.5 million for Gomez, five years and $35.25 million for Drury -- but this isn't just about money. Drury and Gomez are about as mercenary as Boy Scouts on a double-decker bus tour. They're in New York because they want to be, and both are too humble to play the superstar role. Call it good parenting or good coaching or both, but neither man has ever shown much of an ego.
Gomez came of age in the Devils' team-first, me-somewhere-after-the coaches/trainers/fans/ice girls and Zamboni guys system. He's a Calder Trophy winner and an All-Star who can't repress his inner Devil: He wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story until he was assured that Drury would get equal billing.
And for all Drury's success -- 1989 Little League World Series title, 1995 NCAA championship, 1998 Hobey Baker Award, 1999 Calder -- he's always been loathe to toot his own horn. Three years ago, when Drury was being profiled in The Magazine, a reporter called with a few last questions and asked how the previous night's game had gone. "OK," Drury said. "We won." Yes, they had, not least because Drury netted two goals in a 4-3 Sabres win over the division-rival Senators while trying to earn a playoff spot.
And when Drury does talk up his game, he sounds a lot like his new teammate.
Says Drury: "I try to do something to help us win every game. Some nights you're scoring. Some nights you have to find other ways: drawing penalties, blocking shots, winning faceoffs or just standing in front of the net on the power play and letting guys rip it by your ears."
Says Gomez: "I get more of a thrill from setting a guy up, where he just has to tap a goal in, than from anything else. Winning is the bottom line, so I'll play whatever role I've got to play."
And yes, the magnanimity thing can get a little thick. Drury and Gomez's first interaction as teammates, for example, might be the oddest argument in Rangers history. Both men had worn No. 23 with their former teams, so someone had to give it up.
"You take it," Gomez said.
"No, you take it," Drury said.
"You signed first."
"You won a Cup with it."
"You won two Cups."
Gomez then noted that he hadn't picked 23; it had been assigned to him when he made the Devils. He'd worn 19 and 11 in juniors, while Drury, a Yankee fan, chose 23 as a boy in homage to Don Mattingly. Drury suggested that Gomez ask for 11, but Gomez, thinking back to all the times he'd looked up at MSG's rafters and seen Mark Messier's number billowing above, balked. "Uh, Chris," he said, "do you know where we just signed?" At this point, Rangers GM Glen Sather chose the hockey way to settle things: He had them flip a puck. Drury won, so Gomez will wear 19, purchased from center Blair Betts with a $10,000 donation in Betts' name to MSG's Garden of Dreams Foundation.
Sather had to be relieved that the digit dilemma turned out to be his most pressing concern of the summer. In the weeks leading up to the free-agent deadline, he considered re-signing center Michael Nylander while also courting Gomez and Drury. At the time, few thought it possible that one team could land the top two middlemen on the market given the NHL's $50.3 million salary cap. But as Nylander mulled his next move (he later signed with the Caps), Sather feared he'd have no one to pivot for star wings Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. And rather than choose between Gomez and Drury, the GM went after both.
He targeted the Devil first. Gomez was holed up in a Chicago hotel room with his father, Carlos, and agent, Ian Pulver, taking calls from multiple teams. (The Oilers, Canadiens and Kings would have killed to have him.) But only one team ever had a real shot. "New York had everything I wanted," Gomez says. "Original Six. Living in Manhattan. The pressure itself." When Gomez signed and heard the Rangers were still chasing Drury, he called his 2006 Olympic teammate and said, "Let's do this." Minutes later, Drury was a Ranger too.
Much to the delight of another transplanted vet. "Bringing in a couple of winners can help so much," says Shanahan, who won three Cups in Detroit before coming to the Rangers in 2006. "We would have beaten Buffalo if we'd had a little more comfort that we were earning it, that we weren't stealing something. When you have guys who go out there with their chests out and their shoulders back and say, 'I deserve to win,' it's infectious."
Watching the Rangers from the other bench, Drury thought his team had dodged a puck. In Game 2, the Rangers had a 2-1 lead early in the third period when Drury, planted by the right post, redirected a blue-line blast, tying a game the Sabres eventually won. In Game 5 he struck again, banging home a rebound with 7.7 seconds left in the third to force OT. If anyone was stealing games, it was Drury's Sabres. "They gave us a good scare," he says. "I left thinking they had a really good team."
Buffalo went on to lose the Eastern Conference finals to the Senators, who lost to the Ducks in that dismally rated Finals. Not that the hockey wasn't good; the new NHL game is better, faster and more watchable than ever. But the salary cap is meant to ensure parity, and parity is the double-edged sword the NHL has fallen on.
"Hockey has been blessed with a very competitive format in which teams from nontraditional markets have proceeded to the Stanley Cup playoffs," says Neal Pilson, a media consultant and former president of CBS Sports. "But if teams from
more traditional markets had made the Finals, the numbers would have been better."
Maybe, but there was -- and is -- another factor in play: If you can't find it, you can't watch it, and 35 percent of the country doesn't get Versus, the NHL's primary U.S. broadcast partner since 2005. The league is in the third year of a six-year deal with Versus, but a scenario exists that could have ESPN back in the mix before the deal expires. At least one NHL star hopes that happens.
"Hockey has its fans," Gomez says. "But everything goes through ESPN in the world of sports. The game has to go back on ESPN." Which could happen: The Sports Business Journal recently reported that ESPN and the NHL have been talking. (That's more than we could have told you; when we asked our bosses in Bristol for the inside scoop, they sent us a dozen Barry Melrose bobbleheads.)
The Rangers understand their potential to be the standard-bearers in the NHL's trek back to relevance, but they're wary of their flag's becoming a cross. "We want to win a Stanley Cup for team reasons," says coach Tom Renney. "But we hope the residual effect is a raised interest in the game." It played that way in 1994, when the Rangers won their last Cup. Game 7 of that series banked a 5.2 rating, and the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated read "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not."
But even if NHL games don't wind up on ESPN anytime soon, it won't be long before Gomez and Drury are hogging time on SportsCenter with their ability to get the puck to the right person in the right place at the right time -- or to score themselves. In Buffalo's skate-and-gun offense, Drury posted career highs last season with 37 goals and 69 points. Gomez, meanwhile, tallied 13 goals and 60 points on a team that believes good D generates O; the Devils, still running a neutral-zone trap, had only one player with more than 25 goals last season.
Renney says the Rangers' transition-based system will give the freewheeling Gomez more room to operate, opening the floodgates on seven seasons of dammed-up offense. Drury and Gomez entered training camp as centers 1 and 1A, and Renney is confident he could play either with whomever he chooses, whenever he chooses. But clones they're not. "When you get into the subtleties of what they're all about, Gomez is more explosive and dynamic, Drury a little more calculated and discreet," Renney says. "But both are very, very effective."
If relatively anonymous. Drury, carting two gallons of milk out of a bodega on Manhattan's Upper West Side recently, had to stare at a guy he thought was on HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" (he wasn't) before he got a "Hey, you're the new Ranger!" in return. And Gomez spent an hour in a Starbucks near MSG on a late-summer workday afternoon, drinking his grapefruit soda in total peace. Think that'd happen to Eli Manning or Derek Jeter?
But Gomez and Drury just got into town; give them a season. Next June, the Rangers could be polishing the Stanley Cup, and NHL brass could be glowing about their improved ratings. Then the only unfinished business would be the ticker-tape parade.
Let's see who's honking then.
Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.