It could be argued that the Caps never adequately replaced Stevens some two decades later. What can’t be argued is that attendance declined in each of the next five seasons, even though the Caps made the playoffs in all five campaigns. By the time the lockout season of 1994-95 rolled around, Washington’s average paid attendance had plummeted to just 14,159 a night, a drop of nearly 20% from Stevens’ final season in the District.
Ironically, Stevens is often remembered more for the circumstances surrounding his departure from the District than he is for his on-ice contributions during his eight seasons here. Given that he last donned a Caps sweater more than 17 years ago, that’s not surprising.
In July of 1990, he signed a four-year deal worth $5.145 million to jump to the Blues. That pact made him the highest paid defenseman in the NHL at the time, although he was generally not regarded as the best blueliner in the league in those days. Boston’s Raymond Bourque, Pittsburgh’s Paul Coffey and Chicago’s Chris Chelios were generally ranked ahead of Stevens, depending on who was doing the ranking.
Those players would begin demanding the same dollars Stevens was earning, and Washington’s Kevin Hatcher held out in the fall of 1990 because he wanted to be paid along the same lines of the player the Caps were asking him to replace.
“I was a little surprised when it happened,” remembers Stevens now. “It was a great year in St. Louis after spending eight great years in Washington.”
“Washington was very nice and I had a lot of friends, but it was time to move on,” Stevens told The Washington Post on Dec. 22, 1990. “The most important thing is my family and I was looking for a good contract.”
Stevens’ tenure in St. Louis lasted only a season because he was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation after the Blues poached another elite restricted free agent, the Devils’ Brendan Shanahan. The Devils and Blues could not come to terms on adequate compensation for New Jersey’s loss of Shanahan. The Devils wanted Stevens; St. Louis offered goaltender Curtis Joseph, center Rod Brind’Amour and a pair of draft choices.
An arbitrator ruled in the Devils’ favor on Sept. 4, 1991, angering the Blues and Stevens. The defenseman, who had been named the Blues’ captain, waited three weeks before reporting to New Jersey’s training camp.
“Everything happens for a reason,” says Stevens, “and after St. Louis I was off to New Jersey where a lot of good things happened.”
Winning three Stanley Cups and establishing himself among the greatest defensemen to ever play the game are among those good things that happened to Stevens during his decade-plus with the Devils.
Since hanging up his skates, the 43-year-old Stevens has been working on renovating a farmhouse and spending time with his family. He helps coach his son’s high school team, and has an open mind about someday returning to the NHL in some capacity. Stevens has enjoyed his Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto.
“It’s been busy but it’s been fun,” he says. “The best part has probably been reminiscing with the other inductees, the stories. I’ve really cherished those moments. Jim Gregory has a lot of history in hockey and it’s been fun to listen to him and to listen to his stories with Mark and Ron and Al. That’s been the best part.”
To look at him, you’d swear Stevens could still lace them up and give you 20 good minutes if you needed him to. But looks are deceiving; his Sunday skate in the Legends Game told Stevens otherwise.
“I couldn’t get my wind,” he says. “I’m sore everywhere. Sometimes when you’re retired you think, ‘Geez, I could still play.’ I haven’t had the equipment on since I retired. But it was fun. I didn’t feel too bad skating. You get more respect for the game after you’ve been away from it for a while and then you get back on [the ice] and try to play at the level you were at before.”
Stevens was asked how he approached the task of being a captain and team leader during his days with the Devils.
“Lead by example, daily in practice,” he declares. “What you do off the ice, what you do on the ice. People are watching you and players are watching you. Things have been said at times but it’s more about what you do and how you act and how you conduct yourself that has the biggest impact.
“I always took a lot of pride in work ethic. I believe that’s what brought me to the NHL and that’s what kept me there that long, my work ethic. I took a lot of pride in wearing the ‘C’.’ I wanted to make sure I was the hardest worker and the most dedicated player on and off the ice. Hopefully, the guys would see that and follow and have the respect for me.”
He worked hard, and he hit hard. During his prime, there was no better and no more feared an open ice hitter in the league than Stevens.
“I guess a little bit like a linebacker in football,” he answers, when asked how it felt to deliver those patented bodychecks. “I love football. I played in high school and had to cut it short because of hockey. I loved hockey and that was my first passion. I played middle linebacker and I think if you see a lot of my hits, they’re definitely coming left to right in the open ice. I think that was my thing, to patrol the middle of the ice and keep people honest and keep them on the outside.”
Stevens has fond memories of his eight seasons with Washington, even the times when then-coach Bryan Murray had to wrap his arms around his young blueliner on the Capitals bench to prevent his emotions from getting the best of him.
“He was just trying to keep my emotions in control,” remembers Stevens. “Bryan was a fiery guy. I enjoyed Bryan as a coach. We were much the same; we usually hated to lose, loved to win. So we had some of our own battles but we are great friends to this day and keep in touch.
‘That was part of the learning process. I know Bryan likes a physical, tough player but he was the one who said, ‘Scott, we need you to stay on the ice. You can’t be in the penalty box. We can’t have you fighting too much.’ He was the one who settled me down in that area.”
Stevens joins Langway and Larry Murphy – two of his fellow Caps blueline mates from the 1980s – as honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. A fourth teammate, speedy winger Mike Gartner, is also enshrined. Despite having four Hall of Famers and a solid supporting cast, the Caps of that era were never quite able to get over the playoff hump. They made the playoffs in each of Stevens’ eight years in Washington, but advanced as far as the conference finals only once.
“That’s a good question,” says Stevens, when asked what was missing from those Capitals teams. “We had a great bunch of guys and we worked hard. We were great defensively. We might have been at times a little challenged scoring and we might have been a bit challenged in the goal at times. I guess if there are two things I look at, sometimes we couldn’t score when we needed to score and at times maybe we didn’t have the save we needed to have. But there are no regrets. We made the playoffs for the first time, which was a wonderful experience. It was nice to see Washington get on the board and get out of the cellar.”
And it’s nice to see another old Capitals great get his due as one of the best players of his era.
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