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Stevens built Hall of Fame career as a difference maker

by Dan Rosen

Former New Jersey Devil Scott Stevens waves to the crowd before dropping the ceremonial puck before a Devils game on March 2, 2007.
The power with which he delivered those open-ice checks made Scott Stevens fearsome. The talent he displayed in the rest of his game made him special. The voice he used to rally his teammates -- on and off the ice -- made him a leader.

Stevens put it all together for 22 NHL seasons and turned himself into a champion. Now, the former New Jersey Devils captain can add Hockey Hall of Famer to one of the most impressive resumes of any player in NHL history.

“There are a lot of contributions made by individuals, but there are guys that can make a difference,” said Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, who coached Stevens to greatness in New Jersey, “and he’s one of them.”

As part of what is being called the greatest group ever to be inducted into Hockey’s Hall of Fame in Toronto, Stevens brings with him the reputation of being the hardest hitter among his classmates, who include Mark Messier, Ron Francis and Al MacInnis.

“The toughest man who ever played the game,” was how Devils center John Madden described Stevens.

“I guess it’s in my model,” added Stevens, who still lives in New Jersey with his wife, Donna, and their three children. “I’ve always been a physical player ever since I was growing up. That’s the style I played. Obviously, I felt I was a good all-round player, but there is no question I had the biggest impact with my physical play. Maybe it had a way of turning momentum or getting the team fired up.”

Stevens, though, was more than just a rugged 6-foot-2, 215-pound defenseman. He also had some offensive sizzle to his game, especially early in his career.

“The complete package,” is what former Devils defenseman Tommy Albelin, now an assistant coach with the team, once called him.

 fifth overall pick in the 1982 Entry Draft, finished his career with 196 goals and 712 assists for 908 points in 1,635 regular-season games. He added 26 goals and 92 assists for 118 points in 233 playoff games.

“I thought he had great offensive instincts,” said Bryan Murray, Stevens’ coach during his eight seasons in Washington.

Stevens was a burgeoning offensive defenseman while in Washington. He scored 10 or more goals in nine of his 22 NHL season, including six in Washington. He recorded 40 or more points 11 times, including in seven of his eight seasons in Washington.

Stevens kept up his offensive pace during his one season in St. Louis (1990-91) and his first three in New Jersey (1991-94), producing 243 points, including a career-high 78 in 1993-94.

But it was when Stevens bought into Lemaire’s defense-first, trapping system that he really took off and became a Hall of Fame player.

His point totals sagged to just more than 23 per season during his last 10 seasons, after he averaged 56 per season from 1982-94, but with Stevens as their on-ice enforcer and off-ice motivator, the Devils developed into an NHL dynasty.

They won Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

“I got him involved against all the top players, all the top lines, and killing penalties. At that time, he started to focus and do the job,” Lemaire said. “He started to be proud of the job he was doing, and turned out to be the best in the League at it.

“Every time the team was in trouble, we put him on the ice. Every time we had a penalty, we put him on. Every time they sent the top guys from the other side, we put him on. In the key games, he always came out with some hits and had the intensity that is needed to win the Cup.”

“It’s hard to sustain the offense unless you’re Scott Niedermayer with that kind of skating ability, but it showed his capability to being able to contribute offensively,” added former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko, who played 12 seasons with Stevens. “He understood his value was to be a shut-down guy against top lines and change games with big hits.”

Stevens was on an All-Star pace while in Washington, but he thought he was finding a better home in St. Louis when he signed with the Blues in the summer prior to the 1990-91 season, so much so that he sold his house in Maryland and bought one in the St. Louis area.

“It was a sad day, team-wise and personally, when he left the organization,” said Rod Langway, Stevens’ former Washington teammate. “Everyone in our division got really happy when he left.”

The elation lasted all of one season.

Although Stevens said he thoroughly enjoyed his season in St. Louis, and he felt comfortable because he signed a long-term deal, the whirlwind was only starting.

Stevens’ stay with the Blues lasted just one season because he was the player Devils GM Lou Lamoriello targeted as compensation when the Blues signed Brendan Shanahan as a free agent prior to the 1991-92 season. Because the Blues already owed Washington four draft picks for signing away Stevens, they had to give up NHL talent to the Devils in exchange for Shanahan.

The Blues offered Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind’Amour and two draft picks - hardly a package to scoff at - but the Devils targeted Stevens, and eventually an arbiter ruled Stevens was to leave St. Louis for the Meadowlands.

“Off to New Jersey we went, wondering why and what happened.” Stevens said. “The next thing you know it turns out to be one of the best things that happens.”

Unfortunately for Langway and the Capitals, it was one of the worst. Stevens was back in the Patrick Division, and his game was only getting better.

Stevens hoists the Stanley Cup after the Devils defeated the Mighty Ducks in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.

Stevens registered 59 points and a plus-24 rating in his first year with the Devils. The captaincy opened before the next season and Stevens grabbed it. He didn’t let the “C” go until retiring as a result of post-concussion syndrome on Sept. 6, 2005.

He also earned the reputation of one of the NHL’s most ferocious open-ice hitters.

“Scott played with the same intensity at 18 as he did just before he retired,” Langway said. “He played no-nonsense, aggressive, hard-nosed hockey. And he was clean. No dirty stuff. He hit you with his hip or shoulder. No leg checks. No late hits. Just face to face.”

Three of Stevens’ most famous hits came at the most important times.

The first statement he made was in the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, when he crushed Detroit winger Slava Kozlov, a hit Daneyko said sparked the underdog Devils to a series sweep and their first of three Cups with Stevens as the captain.

“The one in ’95 on Kozlov was the statement for that series,” Daneyko said. “It was like he was saying; ‘You guys are favored, but we didn’t come to concede the Stanley Cup.’ He was telling other guys; ‘You’re next.’ That was the turning point.”

Arguably his most memorable monster hit came in the 2000 Eastern Conference Final against Philadelphia, when he leveled Eric Lindros in the first period of Game 7. Lindros, of course, at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, was one of the biggest and strongest players in the League at that time.

Stevens was sick after the hit because he did not intend to injure Lindros, but it sent the Devils off and running to a 2-1 victory and the Stanley Cup Final. They went on to win their second Stanley Cup, this one over the Dallas Stars in six games, and Stevens wound up with the Conn Smythe Trophy.

“I’ve been known to come across and hit and that was my style, from left to right,” Stevens said. “It was a big time, important time, in hockey for the Devils and you do what you have to do to win. If a hit is available, it’s available and you take it.”

After Paul Kariya came over the boards early in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, he felt Stevens’ punishment during an open-ice hit. Kariya miraculously returned to the game and Anaheim forced a Game 7, but the Devils won, 3-0, at home in New Jersey.

“If I’m sitting on the bench and a guy makes a big hit, I know it fires me up,” Stevens said.

Stevens showed signs of a potential Hall of Fame future even during his junior days. He stayed home to play with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL and won the Memorial Cup in 1982.

“We were so lucky to get him,” Murray said. “If you saw him in the first training camp you knew he’d be one of the top players in the League, and it wasn’t too far down the road.”

Stevens played in 77 regular-season games as a rookie and finished with nine goals and 16 assists. He also wasted no time showing his physical side.

“Right off the hop you could tell Scott would be a physical force on the ice,” said MacInnis, who played junior hockey with Stevens. “He was well known for his open-ice hits back then. Paul Gillis came over the blue line one night in Niagara Falls with his head down and Scott ‘met’ him. I thought to myself that I’d be amazed if this kid ever gets up.”

Gillis, just like Kozlov, Lindros, Kariya, and even fellow Hall of Fame inductee Francis – another target of Stevens’ open-ice obsession – eventually wound up back on his skates.

And now each can expertly talk, albeit hesitantly, about being plastered by a Hall of Fame defenseman.

“I was talking to Bobby Carpenter a few years back and he told me Scott is really quiet and keeps it simple,” Langway said. “He’s got his beat-up pickup truck and loves fishing with his kids. In the summer he heads up to Canada to vacation with his family.

“He’s a good man, and he earned this honor.”


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