By PERRY LEFKO
It seems to happen every year in the playoffs.
A relatively unknown player suddenly emerges as a star in the playoffs, scoring at will or stopping every puck shot at him.
Chris Kontos and John Druce each enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame in the playoffs, interestingly just one season apart. Though their stars shone brightly for just a short time, both have to come to realize it is better to be known for something than nothing at all.
There was nothing in Kontos’ hockey pedigree to suggest superstardom. As a junior, he had played well enough with the Sudbury Wolves and the Toronto Marlboros in 1981-82, collectively scoring 42 goals and adding 62 assists in 71 games, that the New York Rangers drafted the 6-foot-1, 195-pound winger 15th overall. His pro career began the following season, as a call-up from junior and he played 44 games, scoring eight goals and adding seven assists. But he couldn’t stick in the NHL and he began a nomadic career through mostly minor leagues, as well as a stint in Europe.
Late in the 1987-88 National Hockey League season, he signed with Los Angeles and played six games – recording a goal and five assists in one of them – and totalled 12 points overall. But despite that success, he was not offered a contract by the Kings so he played in Switzerland only to re-sign with Los Angeles just before the 1988-89 playoffs.
It was a magical time for the Kings. They had acquired Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton the previous summer, making hockey the rage in Los Angeles. Stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hanks and John Candy hung out in the dressing room.
"I knew I was in a great place at a great time," Kontos told Sportsnet.ca.
Besides Gretzky, some of the other Kings’ star players included Bernie Nicholls, Luc Robitaille, John Tonelli, Dave Taylor, Marty McSorley, Steve Duchesne and goaltender Kelly Hrudey.
Kontos was given a regular shift and saw some time on the power play as well, racking up a two goals and one assist in seven regular-season games.
But when the Kings opened the playoffs against Gretzky’s former Edmonton Oilers, Kontos caught fire.
He scored the first goal of the series on a deflection between in legs. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 2 and by the time the series was over, Kontos had scored eight goals, a franchise record for the most goals in a single series. Six of those came on the power play, still an NHL record heading into this year’s playoffs.
"I finished the season strong and just carried it on into the playoffs," he says now.
"There isn’t much physical and mental difference between most NHLers, and when you combine it with a little bit of hard work you get some memorable results. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time."
The magic wouldn’t last, however, He scored just one goal in the next series as the Kings were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames.
Kontos wouldn’t play another NHL playoff game the rest of his career.
Though he was rewarded after those 1989 playoffs with a two-year contract, the Kings had a new coach in Tom Webster and it proved to a harbinger of changes for the playoff goal-scoring hero.
"When I got to training camp, it was under a different regime and with new plans and I obviously belonged to an organization that didn’t have the same people that brought me in," he recalls
Kontos played only six games, spending the balance of the season in the minors. He played for Canada’s national team in 1991-92 and earned another shot in the NHL with the expansion Tampa Bay. He scored four goals in the Lightning’s opener and finished with 27 goals and 51 points. His NHL career ended after that year, but he continued on a journey that included the Canadian national team, minor leagues and Europe before retiring in 1998.
When he recalls his hockey career and his glorious playoff run, Kontos is philosophical.
"For whatever reason, hockey is a great game and it’s tough to stay at the top and when you get your opportunities you have to try to make the best of them," Kontos says. "I played with hundreds and hundreds of guys over my 16 years and a lot of guys I can say probably had eight-, 10-, 12-year careers and a lot of them stayed in the NHL the whole time, but luckily I’ve got something I’m remembered for.
"Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m proud of that fact. Whether I was able to sustain it for the full time or not, at least I left some kind of a mark that my name will come up. I’ve got a 14-year-old son, Kristoff, that plays now and he hears it every once in a while or sees it on TV. I wasn’t Mats Sundin or Wayne Gretzky, but at least I had a few defining marks that when I shone, I shone bright. At least I was talented enough to give myself that opportunity or be in the right spot at the right time.
"You never know when it may come, so my advice is give yourself a chance by always preparing to be the best you can.
"Life is unpredictable."
John Druce can relate to that. He played junior hockey in Peterborough, a team which traditionally plays with four lines and preaches defence. He developed into a good two-way player, modelling himself after another Petes’ alumnus, Bob Gainey, the pre-eminent two-way player of his generation.
The Washington Capitals selected Druce 40th overall in the 1985 Entry Draft, but the 6-foot-2, 195-pound winger had to apprentice in the minors before he earned a call-up midway in the 1988-89 season. He finished with eight goals and seven assists in 48 games. In 1989-90, he started off in the minors in Baltimore and received another mid-season promotion, producing eight goals and three assists in 45 games. The Caps qualified for the playoffs, but Druce played on the fourth line and did little of note. In the second round, however, star winger Dino Ciccarelli suffered a knee injury in the second game. Coincidentally, that was a game in which Druce scored a hat track.
Druce was elevated to the top line with Dale Hunter and Geoff Courtnall. Overall, Druce had nine goals in five games in the series win against the Rangers.
"Obviously with Dino getting hurt, I was getting power-play time, more penalty-killing time," Druce says. "I was on the ice all the time, so I was getting a lot more opportunity to score some goals. Everything just kind of fell into line that way, as well as playing with great players. I think that was the turning point in me becoming a full-time NHL player. I was very streaky scoring goals, but the biggest thing in my mind was I wanted to be solid defensively. I think took away from my offence sometimes."
He played the full 80-game season the next year and had 22 goals – 15 of them before Christmas – and 36 assists. But he was playing with a wrist injury and that, along with his plummeting production and the emergence of Dmitri Khristich, who joined the team for the final 40 games after starting the season in Russia, led to Druce’s decline.
In the playoffs, he had only a goal and an assist in 11 games.
"That was actually a very frustrating playoffs for me because I felt I didn’t play in the playoffs and didn’t get the opportunity," he says.
He had 19 goals and 18 assists in 67 games the following year and one goal and no assists in seven games in the playoffs. He was traded to Winnipeg the next year and became a journeyman thereafter. He ended his NHL career with Philadelphia, playing part of the 1997-98 season.
He played in Germany for a couple of years, then transitioned into broadcasting working for Sportsnet for five years on junior games, NHL games and AHL games. He left the broadcast business to become a full-time financial advisor with Freedom55 in Peterborough.
He still stays close to the game, however, occasionally helping out the Petes and mentoring players.
Druce understands what Kontos experienced and how he expresses it, particularly when it seems the topic of their brief success resurfaces on an annual basis.
"It comes up every year and I remember initially I really didn’t like it because I played 10 years in the National Hockey League and 14 years professionally and I did more than just that playoff (year), but what I came to realize is – and it’s somewhat similar to what Chris said – that became my calling card," Druce says.
"I’m very proud of it, too. I worked very hard to get into the National Hockey League, I put in a lot of hard work and time and effort and to have that opportunity and to achieve something that is remembered that way, it’s pretty amazing. I was very lucky to play the game, very privileged and never took it for granted. I remember my daughter and her boyfriend watching some classic top-10s and I was on one of them. It’s really neat to see the reaction."