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Calmer Stevens morphed into a champion

by Dan Rosen

Scott Stevens received the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman three times in his illustrious career.
Ken Daneyko vividly remembers the game plan any time his New Jersey Devils met the Washington Capitals during the 1980s.

”Get Scott Stevens off the ice, get him riled up,” Daneyko said. “We knew he had a temper and he couldn’t control it as well. He would take penalties or we could get him off the ice by fighting because he wouldn’t back down.”

There was no question Stevens, a 1982 draft pick for the Capitals, already was one of the League’s top defensemen midway through the decade, but he also had the reputation of a hothead. Rattle him even in the least and he would combust.

“He was such a good player that teams focused on getting him involved physically and emotionally,” recalled Bryan Murray, who coached Stevens in Washington. “I remember they’d reach through a crowd of people and take a punch at him to get him really going. That ended up in a couple of misconduct penalties.”

Then, Daneyko said, something clicked for his former teammate.

When Stevens arrived in New Jersey prior to the 1991-92 season, he began to realize that in order to add a Stanley Cup or three to his already impressive resume, he would have to find a way to remain on the ice.

This didn’t mean he had to back down. Far from it, in fact. It just meant Stevens had to curb the nonsense. If he could control his fiery on-ice personality, there was no telling what kind of player he could be.

After all, the true measure of a player’s value is calculated by what he does on the ice, not how many minutes he spends in the penalty box or how many fights he wins.

And Stevens’ value now is measured in Stanley Cup rings, and a Hall of Fame induction.

“To become an elite leader like he became he, No. 1, had to be on the ice and lead the charge and lead by example. That’s not taking bad penalties but still being ferocious with his devastating hits,” Daneyko said. “He learned to mature. We needed him on the ice so he couldn’t just be reckless out there, take penalties and fight and be in the box all the time. He was able to differentiate, and learned how to turn that around.”

The move to New Jersey also forced Stevens to eventually curb some of his offensive flair.

Murray used to put Stevens in front of the net on the power play, and as a result he had a career-high 21 goals in 1984-85 and followed it with 15 more the next year.

Of his 196 career goals in a 22-year career, 97 came during an eight-season span in Washington.

But under Jacques Lemaire’s trapping system in New Jersey, those goals weren’t necessary. Stevens had to become a force from the blue line on back.

He became dominant in that role.

“(Lemaire) thought we didn’t have enough talent to win at a certain style, so he put everybody on the team into a certain role,” Stevens said. “It was interesting, but it worked. He is probably one of the best coaches I had in my career. Everyone makes sacrifices. I wasn’t the only one. It was definitely worth it.”

Stevens’ point total dropped from 56 per season to just 23 when he got to New Jersey, but so, too, did his time spent in the penalty box. Stevens averaged 198 penalty minutes per season through his first nine seasons. During his 13 with the Devils, he took an average of 77.

“In his early days he brought a lot to the table offensively, playing the power play, and he made the first pass better than the other players did,” Murray said. “He certainly refined his game with the Devils, who were well-coached.”

But the tough-guy reputation he earned during those early years in the District of Columbia became a bonus for Stevens during his golden years in the Garden State.

“In the long run what I did early helped me get more respect later on,” Stevens said. “You learn to play on the edge, and that’s how I played, but (in New Jersey) I started doing it without taking penalties. The fine line is something I learned over the years.”

Stevens, though, was rougher around the edges when he first entered the League than even he thought. Rod Langway, a former teammate of Stevens’ in Washington, said he sensed a cockiness to Stevens when Stevens joined the Capitals in 1982.

“I was just trying to prove I belonged and prove I could be on the ice with all of the top players in the League,” Stevens said. “I don’t think I was ever overconfident. Maybe I came across that way, but I always approached it that I was just trying to make the team and stay on the team.”

That’s because he was 18 years old and was joining a veteran group of defensemen, including the likes of Langway, Brian Engblom, Ken Houston and Randy Holt.

Stevens had to stand out, so he was a bit brash and never hesitated to drop the gloves to stick up for the same teammates that he was trying to impress.

“Was he coachable? Hmmm. He had his own way,” Langway said. “People taught him some things, but he’s very confident in himself, cocky if you want. He knew he was good.”

Langway recalled that early in Stevens’ career it bothered him when other people didn’t see it that way.

”I remember when he got cut from the (1987) Canada Cup team and when he failed to make NHL All-Star teams that he thought he deserved,” Langway said. “He saw who went and it would eat him alive. Just being invited to try out you’d think would be an honor, but he didn’t see it that way. We’d see him come back and he was miserable, just a bear. We’d tell him his turn will come, don’t take it so hard, you’ll be on winning teams one day.

“Sure enough, he wins three Stanley Cups and was the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now he’s getting the biggest reward of all, the Hockey Hall of Fame. For all the years that he bitched and moaned, he’s laughing at a lot of people now.”


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