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It's hard to believe 22 years later, but it was an independent arbitrator that brought the Devils' most iconic player to New Jersey.
The circumstances may have been unusual, but Scott Stevens, the longtime New Jersey Devils captain who is now entering his first 82-game season as a full-time assistant coach with the team, can't imagine things having been any different.
The future Hall of Famer was awarded to the Devils in 1991 as compensation after the St. Louis Blues signed restricted free agent Brendan Shanahan. When Stevens arrived, the Devils were a franchise without a concrete identity. When he retired as a player in 2004, the team had won the Stanley Cup three times, a run built on an indelible reputation for toughness and defensive responsibility. No player embodied that style better than Stevens.
"Everything happens for a reason. I've had some great years here. This is all my family knows, being in New Jersey," Stevens told NHL.com before being honored by the Canadian Association of New York at the organization's annual Hockey Achievement Award Dinner.
"I've been very fortunate to win Stanley Cups here and play with some great teammates, and have a great GM and coaches over the years. It's a very special place and a place we plan on staying."
In his 13 seasons with New Jersey, Stevens established himself as one of the premier defensemen in the NHL. His intimidating presence and crushing hits helped define a team that had been searching for an identity since the franchise relocated to New Jersey in 1982.
But Stevens wasn't known so much for that rugged style when he first arrived in New Jersey. During his first eight NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals, Stevens established himself as a high-scoring defenseman who also spent plenty of time, perhaps too much, in the penalty box.
After being named the team's captain in 1992, Stevens enjoyed a breakout season with the Devils in 1993-94, notching career highs in points (78) and plus/minus (plus-53). But his 112 penalty minutes were a far cry from the 200-plus he regularly posted through the first decade of his career.
Under the guidance of coach Jacques Lemaire andassistant Larry Robinson, who had been part of a dynasty with the Montreal Canadiens, Stevens' game changed drastically following that breakout season. He'd never come close to the offensive numbers he posted in 1993-94. But his transformation into a shutdown defender would be one of the defining moments in Devils history.
"I might have learned more those years under Lemaire and Robinson than I did my first 10 years of pro hockey. They were great coaches and great mentors, and obviously they knew how to win," Stevens said. "You have to give up individual awards and sacrifice. The guys here have done that and that's how you win Stanley Cups."
Stevens took some time off to be with his family following his retirement, then returned to the team in 2008 as a special assignment coach. After Robinson left the Devils to join the staff of the San Jose Sharks last summer, Stevens was named a full-time assistant before the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. As he enters his second season behind the bench, Stevens is hoping to impart on New Jersey's defensemen some of the lessons he learned as a player.
But he admits that hockey has changed since he played.
"The game is faster. I think the game was going to get faster anyways. Getting rid of the red line, my feeling is that made the game faster and not as much east-west," Stevens said. "Now you can make a pass from your goal line to the other blue line and tip it in and be playing hockey. I'm not sure it's my favorite way."
Stevens says he would have had no problem adapting to the faster NHL as a player. But he also admits that coaching presents a set of challenges he never encountered during his playing days. As he enters a new chapter in his career with the team that retired his number in 2006, he can't help but get that itch behind the Devils bench, that urge to get back on the ice and play the style that changed the fortunes of the franchise.
"When you're always doing it your whole life, sometimes you wish you could go out there and do the job yourself," Stevens said. "You always want to be a player, but being on the bench is the next closest thing to playing."
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer