Twenty-five years ago this summer, the Washington Capitals drafted a defenseman with the No. 5 choice in the 1982 NHL draft. The kid went on to make the team as a teenager that fall, and he also went on to become arguably the best NHL defenseman in the post-Bobby Orr era.
Today that defenseman learned he would join Orr and many of the game’s other greats in the hallowed halls of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Scott Stevens has played more NHL regular season games (1,635) and more Stanley Cup playoff games (233) than any other defenseman in the league’s history. He played on three Stanley Cup championship teams and toiled for 22 seasons in the league. He also holds the league record for most games played on a winning team (879) and most appearances in a Game 7 of a playoff series (13).
Along with Mark Messier, Ron Francis and Al MacInnis, Stevens will be formally inducted into the Hall this November. Jim Gregory will be inducted in the builder category.
Stevens’ NHL journey began here in Washington a quarter-century ago. When it came time for Washington to make the fifth overall choice at the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, there was a serious lack of consensus at the Washington table. The team’s scouts were split among a few different players. Needing to settle the dispute and make the pick, interim general manager Roger Crozier made an executive decision and opted for Stevens, who had just finished his rookie season with Kitchener of the OHL. Stevens led all rookie OHL defensemen in scoring with 42 points in 1981-82.
He first took to the ice when he was just four years old, and he grew up admiring the brilliant Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Stevens credited former NHL winger (and longtime Hershey Bears stalwart) Myron Stankiewicz with helping his development as a player during his teenage years and for keeping him on the backline.
“He was really good to me,” remembered Stevens in a 1985 interview in The Hockey News. “He was my coach and he really had a lot of confidence in me. I wanted to make it so bad, and he said, ‘You can do it if you want to,’ and he helped me a lot.’
“That year, I stayed back a year. You see, the coach [of the next age division] wanted me to play forward because he said I was too small for defense, if you can believe that.”
Few could believe it now.
Stevens made the Capitals’ roster at the tender age of 18, taking advantage of a few training camp injuries to carve out a spot for himself. He never played a game in the minors. Stevens scored a goal on his first shot in his first NHL game, beating the New York Rangers’ Eddie Mio in a 5-4 Washington win on Oct. 6, 1982.
He was a rambunctious sort in the early days, often running around and looking for the big hit. He could fight, too, and he rarely lost. But as the years went by and he developed into a better and better defenseman, the Capitals started wanting him on the ice more than they wanted him getting in fights and taking bad penalties. In 1985-86 the Capitals claimed tough guy Dwight Schofield in the NHL waiver draft specifically so that Stevens and fellow Hall of Famer Rod Langway would not have to go up against other Patrick Division pugilists such as Philadelphia’s Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet.
“They’re too valuable to go to the box with some guy who has half their ability,” then Caps coach Bryan Murray sagely observed in 1986.
Stevens became better at both ends of the ice. In 1984-85 he netted a career high 21 goals. Sixteen of those came on the power play, setting a club record for defensemen that still stands. His solid frame and rugged style got another coach thinking about moving him up to the wing.
“Scott goes to the net better than many of the forwards on our team,” noted Murray in 1984. “His natural instincts are remarkable. I’d love to use him on the wing because I think he’d really stir things up, but he’s just too valuable on defense to consider it.”
During his eight seasons in Washington, the Capitals made the playoffs every year. Stevens played in 601 regular season games in the red, white and blue and totaled 98 goals, 429 points and 1628 penalty minutes.
On July 16, 1990, Stevens signed a four-year restricted free agent offer sheet from the St. Louis Blues worth $5.145 million. Washington opted not to match the deal, and the Capitals received the Blues’ next five first-round Entry Draft selections as compensation.
There are those that would argue the Caps have been trying to fill Stevens’ void ever since.
With the five picks they got from the Blues, Washington added Trevor Halverson (1991), Sergei Gonchar (1992), Brendan Witt (1993) and Miika Elomo (1995). The Caps dealt the 1994 choice to Toronto in the Rob Pearson deal. The Leafs used the pick on goaltender Eric Fichaud.
The Stevens offer sheet not only left the Caps with a big hole on their blueline, it also turned the NHL on its ear economically. The deal included a $1.4 million signing bonus, and it made Stevens the highest paid defenseman in the league. Suddenly, Stevens was making more than twice what three-time Norris Trophy winner Raymond Bourque was earning in Boston.
It also opened up a can of contractual worms right here in Washington. Although he was still under contract to the Capitals as training camp opened for the 1990-91 season, Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher made it known that he would not report to training camp in Lake Placid because Stevens was being paid so much in St. Louis and Hatcher was being asked to fill his skates in the District.
At the time Hatcher had two years and an option remaining on a deal that was to pay him $200,000 for the 1990-91 season. It wasn’t until the end of September that the Caps were able to resolve the issue and get Hatcher into camp. The escalating salaries for NHL players that came out of the Stevens offer sheet in 1990 is believed by most to be directly related to the lockout of 1994-95 that cost the league the first half of the season.
The offer sheet Stevens signed with St. Louis was the first of a string of controversial off-ice economic episodes that involved the hard-nosed defenseman. After just one year with the Blues, Stevens was off to New Jersey as part of another controversial event. The Blues had signed left wing Brendan Shanahan to a restricted free agent offer sheet, a deal the Devils chose not to match. An arbitrator ruled that Stevens would have to go to New Jersey as compensation for the deal.
Eight years after they lost Stevens, the Blues paid a steep price when it was determined that they had tampered with the defenseman by negotiating with him while he still belonged to the Devils. St. Louis was fined a league record $1.5 million and forced to surrender a first-round draft choice as well.
Stevens captained the Blues during his lone season in St. Louis and then captained the Devils for nearly 13 years. The Devils won a Stanley Cup in Stevens’ fourth year with the team and claimed two others before his retirement. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league’s playoff MVP in 2000. Stevens never won a Norris Trophy, but was twice the runner-up for the award. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice and to the Second All-Star Team on three occasions. Stevens played in 13 NHL All-Star Games and missed another because of injury in 2003-04, his final season in the league.
He came down with a bout of the flu in January 2004, and it was during this time that he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. Stevens missed half the season and the playoffs because of the ailment. A season-long lockout followed, and Stevens announced his retirement soon after the labor dispute had been solved.
Congratulations to Scott Stevens. He was one of the best ever, both in Washington and in the NHL, and his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame is richly earned.