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There's More to Stevens Than We See

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
The demeanor of John Stevens behind the Flyers bench is almost professorial. Stevens generally remains calm during games as he contemplates strategy. When he speaks to the media, he often sounds like a supermarket manager making announcements. His voice stays on one mid-range level.

However, Stevens can get worked up.

"If you polled my players, they probably could have locked me up a few times," he said. "Over time, I do get pretty animated, but usually it's behind closed doors. I learned my lesson early as a young coach: when you get too excited, you can't be as objective as you need to be. It's important that the players understand where I'm coming from. It's always from the heart. If I get upset, they know it's for good reason."

In an effort to get the Flyers to shoot higher and cure their scoring problems, Stevens covered the lower part of the net during practices. Told that a few more gimmicks like this and he'll be known as "Crazy John", Stevens laughed and said, "If it works, they can call me anything they want."

This sounds like something the late great Fred Shero would do. Shero occasionally gave his players some drills that made no sense. He wanted players to question his methods. Finally, Bob Clarke asked, "Why are we doing this?" Shero smiled and said, "I've been waiting for someone to ask that question."

When Ken Hitchcock was dismissed as the Flyers' head coach following a 1-6-1 start to the season, it put Stevens in a difficult position. A successful coach with the Phantoms, Stevens only had training camp and eight regular season games as one of Hitchcock's assistants.

Still, it's a challenge that Stevens welcomes.

"Getting to know your players and opponents is a big learning curve," he said. "But I had a chance to see the league a little bit and I started to understand the schedule a little better. Because the American League is a family-based league - it caters to a lot of groups and kids, the whole league primarily is played on the weekends. You have big chunks of time, from Monday to Thursday, to practice.

"(In the NHL) you don't have those chunks of practice time. One game seems to run into the next, in terms of preparation. You have to address your areas of need right away and prepare for the next opponent."

Stevens, 40, said the input of Assistant Coach Terry Murray has been a huge help regarding practices and game preparation.

"He's been in the league a long time," Stevens said. "He understands where the players are in terms of rest and how much practice time they need."
Referring to the former Flyers' head coach, Stevens said, "Terry loves the game, he loves the preparation for the game. He truly loves to coach. He's very open to be a mentor to me."

Injuries have been a factor in the Flyers' disappointing start. Not having Mike Knuble, Randy Robitaille and Jeff Carter has affected the Flyers' attempt to play the way Stevens and their fans expect them to play.

But the biggest complaint I've heard from fans is, the Flyers aren't competing. Overcoming this malaise is one of Stevens' goals.

"I am confident that we can compete harder than we've competed to this point," he said. "I believe we're capable of competing at a higher level collectively."

Another flaw is the missing leadership of retired veterans Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins. Primeau was one of the best captains ever to wear the "C" for the Flyers.

"Keith was a very up front, take-the-bull-by-the-horns leader," Stevens said. "With our team right now, we're not going to ask any one guy to do that. But collectively, we have some veteran guys that are capable of it as a group. Peter Forsberg, the kind of player he is, can lead by example. I do sense that we have a group of veteran players that care."

The Flyers care about scoring goals, but were woeful through 15 games: they scored just 30 goals. Covering the lower part of the goal cage is an example of things Stevens will try to boost the confidence of the Flyers.

"With anything, not just hockey, when you lack confidence (you'll struggle)," he said. "It's like taking a test. When you haven't done your homework and you're not sure what the answers are going to be, it's pretty nerve-racking. When you (take) a test and you know all the answers, you can sleep good at night and go into the test with a lot of confidence.

"If you're a defenseman and you're faced with (Jaromir) Jagr, if you practice your one-on-ones and your angling, and you've done your training so you're strong, you feel very confident going up against him.

"(For goal scorers) if your puck skills have gotten a lot better, and you're shooting the puck more and hitting the net more, and you can take a pass in stride and execute plays, you'll see your confidence rise."

Stevens said the Flyers veterans have bought into what his staff is trying to get across.

"They're competitors and they love having fun," he said. "We're not making it seem like work. We're sharing with them why we want to work on things. Our practices are up-tempo."

After Stevens was promoted with the Flyers, Craig Berube was named an assistant coach. Berube had replaced Stevens as the Phantoms' head coach. The former Flyer had served as an assistant coach with Stevens at the Phantoms.

Berube and Stevens go way back together. "We were rookies together in Hershey in 1986," Stevens said. "He was a marginal player, known as a tough guy. But to play 1,000 (NHL) games as a marginal player you have to be very dedicated. He's very detail oriented and has great people skills. He understands the game well."

Stevens impresses people as someone who was born to coach. A native of New Brunswick (the Canadian province, not the New Jersey city), Stevens moved with his family when he was young to Turkey Point, Ontario. After playing junior hockey for Oshawa as a defenseman, he was drafted by the Flyers in the third round of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.

He played in 53 NHL games with the Flyers and Hartford. When the Flyers were staffing the Phantoms, they signed Stevens and named him the Phantoms first captain. An eye injury in 1999 forced Stevens to retire as a player. He immediately became an assistant coach with the Phantoms. He then succeeded Bill Barber as Phantoms coach when Barber moved up to the Flyers.

Stevens says Clarke, the former Flyers general manager and Hall of Fame player, pushed him toward coaching. "When I was with Hartford, I started working with the younger players," Stevens said. "Ever since the Hartford days, coaching was something I thought I'd pursue."

After Stevens guided the Phantoms to the Calder Cup two years ago, he interviewed for the Anaheim Ducks head coaching job.

"I didn't take it any further after the initial interview," Stevens recalled. "It was late in the process. I didn't think the timing was right. I have a young family. We really like the area and the (Flyers) organization."

Stevens was groomed by the Flyers organization to be an NHL coach. Now, here he is. He's been dealt a difficult hand though. Maybe, with the players he has, he will be able to get the Flyers moving this season in the direction they want.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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