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When John Druce Was Loose

(Image from the SI Vault.)

Sometime during April of 1990, when John Druce was busy helping the Caps knock the Rangers out of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, he received a letter from a Blueshirts fan.

"You leave the rink," the letter read, "you better have somebody by your side, or you're dead."

But Druce was in the middle of one of the best scoring stretches in NHL playoff history, and wasn't checking his fan mail. He didn't see the letter until after the playoffs were over, after the Caps had gone to the conference finals for the first time, thanks in large part to his 14 postseason goals.

"That would have been kind of nerve-racking going to the rink if I'd have read that, you know?" he told me last night with a laugh.

I'd wanted to talk to Druce for a while, but with the Caps-Rangers series starting tonight, the timing became perfect. Back in 1990, when the Caps had yet to advance out of the divisional playoffs or beat the Rangers in the postseason, an injury to Dino Ciccarelli suddenly had Druce skating with Dale Hunter and Geoff Courtnall. Druce had always been a streaky scorer, one who depended on confidence and good vibes, and now he was getting power-play chances and earning "Druuuuuce" ovations from the fans, visualizing success on the way to the arena and being praised left and right by Coach Terry Murray.

The Caps beat the Rangers in five games; Druce had nine goals, including the series winner in Game 5. And the media flooded the zone: he was in The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, celebrated by the D.C. media and cursed in New York. Years later, when he was playing with the Flyers, he was a scratch during a game in the Garden and sat in the stands with friends.

"Somebody from down the aisle saw me," he remembered, "and the guy's like, 'Druce, you bum!' I'm not even dressed, and they're calling me a bum."

For better or worse, the Spring of '90 made Druce into a forever Caps icon; even now, local bloggers ask if there's anyone on this roster ready to pull a John Druce this spring.

"Do they say that still?" he said with another laugh. "Originally I was very proud of what happened there, but I played 14 years of professional hockey, so I thought, 'Jeez, I did more than that.' I've come to realize that's kind of my calling card. I'm very proud of it, and this time of year comes around and it's nice. When you said that people are saying stuff like that, that's pretty cool. When you think about it, it's almost 20 years ago, right? It's a lasting impression."

Indeed it is. For those who weren't here or weren't following the Caps, Druce was a 24-year old two-way player who had split time between the big club and its AHL affiliate in Baltimore. He scored eight goals in 45 regular-season games, though he had started to warm up near the end of the year. He notched three goals in the opening-round win over New Jersey, including two game-winners, and then he turned hotter than RFK in July.

A goal in Game 1. A hat trick in Game 2. Two goals and two assists in Game 3. Two more in Game 4. The series-clincher in Game 5, in overtime, in Madison Square Garden.

"That whole series was Druce," Rod Langway recalled earlier this year. "I mean, he was one of those quiet kids, beautiful wife, great family guy. And he was one of those nervous guys, you could just tell he wasn't gonna score a goal. And then all of the sudden his attitude changed; he got the first goal, and then hat trick, two goals. We knew he was on fire. It was just enjoyable to watch what happened to him, because he became a superstar for that one series. And it was fun to see."

"A phenomenon of the first order," The Post wrote. "The reality and the dream have become intertwined," according to the Boston Globe. "Scoring in Gretzky-like proportions," gushed the AP. "He's a guy who's a checker, he isn't even a scorer," Rangers Coach Roger Neilson told SI after the series. "Every time he stuck out his stick, the puck went in."

That whole theme, Druce told me, has always been a bit of an oversimplification, an easier way to spin the myth. No, he wasn't a pure scorer, but he had always scored in streaks, even in the following years when the "phenomenon" talk died down. A second-round draft pick, he had always manufactured success off the confidence of his coaches and teammates, so the cycle became self-sustaining that spring. He considered himself responsible defensively, so throughout his career he wasn't always free to go to the net, but when he got his chances, he often converted, and by doing things the hard way.

"Get to the net, look for rebounds, bang for rebounds, pick up the garbage, go into the trenches," he summarized. "[Then-GM] David Poile was talking to me, and he says, 'Drucer, if you're not on your ass in front of the net, you're not doing your job.' You've got to go in the danger areas to score the goals. Teams that are going to be successful in the playoffs are gonna have to go to the net and create traffic. If you get the puck to the net and there's traffic in front, you're going to score goals."

As for the streak itself, Druce said he never worried about re-creating it. After shredding the Caps playoff record book, he played eight more season for four different NHL clubs including the Caps; only once did he score 20 goals. After he retired he spent five years as a hockey analyst for Sportsnet, then became a financial advisor in his native Peterborough. He gets plenty of media inquiries annually when the playoffs creak to life, but he no longer minds when that call comes, and he doesn't have struggle to remember the feelings he had that spring.

"Absolutely," he said. "I remember feeling like I was in a zone. I was very calm on the ice. I don't know, it was a weird calm, you know? You're busting your hump every shift, but at the same time still taking in who you're playing against, taking in the atmosphere of the building, feeding off the atmosphere. Totally intense but totally relaxed at the same time. Obviously you've got to work hard, do everything it takes to win the battles and get to the area you need to get to. But there was a confidence and calmness about it, feeling like you could do whatever you wanted, basically: Get to the net, be strong, manhandle guys. All those things Ovechkin does every night. If I could have kept that up for a whole season, maybe I would have scored 50, but it never happened."

Druce said his personality has changed dramatically since his playing days--he's no longer quiet or shy--and while he doesn't have as much time to follow hockey, he still has fond feelings for D.C. and Caps fan. ("When I was there we had really good teams, and the fans were incredible," he said. "It was tremendous.")

He still roots for the Caps, is pulling for them in this series, and identifies his career primarily with that franchise. He knows the team went through a few tough years this decade, and was happy to hear about the sold-out building and the buzz around town; "they should be the big thing in town right now," he noted approvingly.

As for the inevitable question--will this year's series against the Rangers produce another John Druce?--he offered his standard answer. Too many right-place-right-time things have to happen, and even then it's impossible to predict. If Ciccarelli hadn't gotten hurt against the Rangers, maybe no one would have ever asked about the next John Druce. You can look for someone who ended the season strong, but mostly, you just have to wait and see. That's what makes it fun.

"You know what, I'm honored, I'm honored that people remember that," he told me. "The best thing about it is it could happen to anybody. If somebody's in the zone and somebody gets could be anybody this year, anybody could step it up and light it up. Which is great. It's just so fun to see. You cheer for guys like that, you cheer for the guys you don't expect it from, you know? And it's a surprise."

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 15, 2009; 6:49 AM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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You should post a link to "An April to Remember," the highlight video from that playoff run, starring the horribly-recorded voice of Jeff Rimer and sappy 80s hits like Runnin Down a Dream and What a Feelin.

I know there's a link out there but I always have trouble finding it.

Posted by: fronesis1016 | April 15, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

actually, nevermind...someone uploaded it during last year's playoff run...

Posted by: fronesis1016 | April 15, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

19 years later, it's still tough to beleive that John Druce, for one month in 1990, was the best hockey player in the world...

It was a great run!

Posted by: MikeL-Caps91 | April 15, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

As someone who was a big 3 years old during that playoff run and didn't have any clue who John Druce was, it was very cool to read this article. Gave me goosebumps...I can only hope this playoff run is as exciting as that one!


Posted by: kikinguyen616 | April 15, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

If he hadn't been sent down, Aucoin would have been my nominee for this year's Druce. Largely unknown, good pure scorer, and with the Caps because of injuries. Alas...

Posted by: jgperras | April 15, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

OMG between Druce and Langway's OT goal to win Game 4 of that series (after he hadn't scored at all in the regular season) that playoff year was so much fun.

Posted by: gocaps2 | April 15, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

GoCaps2: I think Langway's OT goal occurred the following season against the Rangers ('91 playoffs). Those days were nice though when we could count on the Caps winning at least one series. It's been a loonng drought....

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | April 15, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Nope, top was in 1990 (I too was there). A wild game where NYR came from 3-1 down to tie, only to see Langway's heroics (from the point, if I remember correctly) early into OT.

The Caps beat NYR at home in 1991 in Game 6, which was also pretty cool...Dino won game 5 from what I remember in the Garden. Of course, that is also the year they were squonked by the Pens in 5, after blowing a chance at a 2-0 road lead with a 7-6 OT loss. And thus began the Pens curse, only to be broken once (1994).

Posted by: wxdancer | April 15, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I've been looking for that Langway goal for forever. Awesome. Now, I only need to find the old "ice breakers, goal shakers" theme song.

Posted by: Zornado | April 15, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Given the way he's been putting the puck in the net the last few weeks, Brooks Laich could have a Druce-like scoring binge in him this year.

Posted by: chombie13 | April 15, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Great stuff, Steinz.

Posted by: JohninMpls | April 15, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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