On Monday, Stevens was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in his first year of eligibility. He went in alongside three of his longtime NHL peers: defenseman Al MacInnis and forwards Mark Messier and Ron Francis. All four were chosen in NHL drafts between 1979 and 1982, all were team captains in the NHL and all gained enshrinement in their first year of eligibility. Between them, they won a dozen Stanley Cup championships. That quartet of players and longtime hockey executive Jim Gregory make up the 2007 class of inductees for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“It's definitely an honor and privilege to go in with these great players that I've played against and played with off and on through my career,” said Stevens in a conference call conversation last week. “They are all great people and great players, and like I said, it's a great quality of people and it's definitely a special induction.”
Stevens spent the first eight of those seasons, the first 601 of those regular season games and the first 67 of those playoff contests wearing a Capitals sweater. He led the team in assists twice and in penalty minutes five times. With 1,628 career penalty minutes, Stevens ranks second only to Dale Hunter (2,003) on Washington’s all-time franchise ledger in that department. With 429 career points as a Capital, Stevens still ranks among the franchise’s all-time top 10 (he’s ninth). Although he played only about a third of his career with the Caps, Stevens netted exactly half (98) of his 196 career goals in a Capitals uniform.
After Philadelphia chose Ron Sutter with the fourth overall choice in the 1982 Entry Draft, there were those within the Caps’ scouting contingent who were lobbying for the team to take Sutter’s twin brother Rich with the fifth pick. There was dissent in the ranks, but interim general manager Roger Crozier made an executive decision.
Washington spent its first choice (fifth overall) in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft on Stevens, a defenseman for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers who had led all rookie defensemen in scoring in that league with 42 points in 1981-82. Stevens never did get to show what he could do as a sophomore with Kitchener.
“I went in there with the mindset that I wasn’t going back to junior,” Stevens says. “I just wanted to play in the NHL. That was my goal ever since I was growing up. Every time [you get to] the next step it’s a faster pace and in the NHL I was finally at the level where I wanted to be. I went in there playing physical and fighting. That was part of my game and that was a big part of the [game] in the ’80s and I think that’s what the coaches liked about me was my physical style that I brought to the game and my hitting. I think that part probably got me to the NHL. And from there, I was working on other parts of my game. I wanted to be an all-around defenseman, but I was very cautious my first year. I had some decent numbers but I wanted to be a plus player and I wanted to be physical. That was my goal.”
An offseason injury to blueliner Lee Norwood and a strong training camp showing on Stevens’ part landed the 18-year-old youngster a berth on the Washington blueline. At the time, the Capitals had never made the Stanley Cup playoffs. During Stevens’ eight-season tenure in the District, the Caps never missed the playoffs.
Stevens scored a goal on his first shot in his first NHL game, a 5-4 Caps win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 6, 1982,
“He’s thrown three of the best checks I’ve seen in a couple of years,” Caps bench boss Bryan Murray, then in his first full season on the job, told The Hockey News
in October of Stevens’ rookie season. “We’ve taken him aside and talked with him about position and using his partner, and he’s responded well. There’s no doubt in my mind he can step right in.
“Sure, he’s very nervous, afraid of things. Here’s a kid who played just one year of junior hockey, coming to camp and seeing all these guys who have a good deal of ability and experience. He sees how exceptionally quick Dennis Maruk can skate, and that makes him question whether he’s ready to play. But the level comes up very quickly.”
“It’s so much faster,” said Stevens in the same issue of THN
. “All these guys are men, not kids. In junior, you play with a lot of young guys, some smaller ones, and some that are stronger than you. Here, all the guys are the same size and they’re strong. I’ll just have to get used to it. I’ll just have to work at it.”
He worked at it, and he had help from a pair of newly acquired Caps defenders. Blueliners Rod Langway and Brian Engblom had come to the Capitals in a six-player trade with Montreal just prior to the start of training camp in 1982. For the early part of his career, Stevens was often paired with Engblom. The veteran guidance he got from Engblom and Langway combined with his own work ethic ensured that Stevens did not go back to juniors, and that he never spent a day of his 22-year career in the minor leagues.
“I think that helped,” said Stevens, of the pre-training camp trade that brought Langway and Engblom to Washington. “I was going in there thinking, ‘Geez, I’m not going to be able to make this team, they’ve got Engblom and Rod there.’ But actually it was a blessing in disguise because I could just sort of sneak right in there and come under the radar because they were taking all the publicity and they were the two guys who were going to be the mainstays. That definitely helped me and then to come in there and play with Brian at the same time, who was wonderful for me.”
“He helped build the franchise,” Langway told The Washington Post
on Mar. 19, 1991 when Stevens made his first return to Washington as a visiting player. “He and I came in at the same time, when he was a rookie [in 1982]. We put people in the building with a winning attitude and the way we played.”
That they did. In the season before the arrival of Stevens and Langway, the Capitals averaged just 11,377 paying customers a night. During the summer of 1982, newspapers were filled with speculation of whether or not team owner Abe Pollin would be able to keep the failing franchise in town. A group of worried fans formed a “Save the Caps” group and telethons and other fund-raising elements were introduced.
Beginning in 1982-83, attendance rose steadily, proving that quality hockey and a winning team would put people in the seats in Washington. Attendance rose to a franchise high of 17,251 in 1989-90, the first time the Caps reached the conference finals. But that’s also when Washington let Stevens loose, refusing to match a lucrative restricted free agent offer sheet proffered by the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 1990. Instead, the Caps chose to accept five first-round draft choices as compensation for the loss of one of the game’s best blueliners.
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