Stevens still a force
The more times have changed, the more New Jersey's Scott Stevens has remained the same.
In 1982, Scott Stevens' rookie year in Washington, the Capitals made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Before Game 1 against the New York Islanders, coach Brian Murray called Stevens, Rod Langway and me into his office for a meeting.
Murray explained that throughout the game, he wanted at least one of us on the ice at all times. And without missing a beat, he turned to Stevens, pointed his finger and bellowed, "And Scott, stay out of the (expletive) penalty box!"
Scott just sat there sheepishly with an embarrassed look on his face, nodding in acknowledgement.
The enforcer ...
It's easy to remember Stevens as an 18-year-old kid coming into the NHL because he's really no different now than he was then. Off the ice, he was quiet and disciplined, but as soon as he put on the pads, he became a menace, who was perpetually in a bad mood.
Stevens was tough, strong and intense. And although, at the time, he was a boy in a man's body, he possessed the same stature and glare that he exhibits today. Whether he's entering a preseason matchup or the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final, his concentration, and game-day snarl have never changed.
For much of his rookie year, Stevens and I were paired together. The first thing I noticed on the ice was that he wasn't going to let anyone to push him around. He had more than a few fights, and he wasn't particular about his opponents -- anybody and everybody, regardless of their reputation or size.
When facing confrontation, Stevens never hesitated. He never worried about getting beat up or spending time in the penalty box -- he didn't care.
Certainly, there were times when his hot-blooded temper would get the better of him. As a teammate, there were moments of frustration because he'd take needless penalties. We needed him on the ice, and we knew opposing teams were just baiting him to put him in the box.
Within a few years, experience, in tandem with the Capitals' enforcement, taught Stevens that he was much more valuable to the team on the ice. He learned how to harness his temper, pick his spots and walk away from needless penalties.
But he never took as much as a half step backwards and he never lacked confidence -- not ever. That's just not his nature.
Remember, this was back in the early '80s; the game was played differently. If the game turned excessively in either team's favor, Stevens would deal with it by playing the enforcer. If the Capitals fell behind, he saw it as a good time to be nasty and turn up the momentum by getting into a scrap.
Freight train coming ...
Stevens always has had an uncanny ability to land open-ice body checks. I still remember the feeling of a force howling down to my left. Out of nowhere, with no warning, Stevens would barrel in like a freight train.
I think he actually got a piece of me a couple of times. I'm not sure either one of us ever knew when he was coming, and it shocked me at first, but eventually, I became accustomed to the unexpected, welcome surprise.
Twenty-two years later, Stevens continues to be regarded as the most fearsome open-ice hitters in the game. Like a 50-goal scorer, pure hitting is a lost art that's impossible to teach. Sure, players can develop mechanics and work on technique, but certain qualities are dependant on natural instinct and pure strength.
Stevens possesses both the skills and physique to assure he never comes out in second place. My fellow ESPN analyst Bill Clement said it best when he noted that when Stevens comes across the ice and sees the play funnel into the zone, he's like a fighter pilot. Once his radar locks in, he gets tone on you, and he doesn't miss.
And it's not as if he's targeting the smaller or slower opponents. Two hits that come to mind: His collision with Eric Lindros, who at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds can't be confused with tiny, during the 2000 Eastern Conference final and the hit he laid on Paul Kariya during last year's Stanley Cup final. Kariya is one of the NHL's fastest and shiftiest players; guys like him have radar, so for Stevens' to catch him with his head down was unbelievable.
Contrary to what some people might believe, Stevens is not without empathy. I will never forget the look on his face after he hit a concussion-riddled, Lindros; staring blankly at the ice with that heavy-weight look on his face. He closed his eyes and then shook his head a few times as if trying to shake off the bad feelings and keep his head in the game.
Sure, Stevens' is the ultimate professional, and he won't apologize for the way the game is played, but there's no doubt he was worried and sorry about Lindros getting hurt.
Stevens plays by the rules. He doesn't stick out his knees or elbows, because that's a dangerous way to hit. In fact, throughout his career, he's only accumulated a handful of elbowing penalties. That's a testament to his clean hitting style.
Physical force ...
Stevens is fanatical about physical conditioning; he's a block of granite. Recently, I asked him how it's possible that he's stronger than ever after playing so many years of professional hockey. He told me that he eliminates milk products and sugar from his diet, and works out every day -- even in the offseason. And he added that people better "watch out" on the rare day he misses a workout because he'll be in a bad mood.
That superior strength contributes to his tremendous offensive shot. Many people forget that in his early years Stevens saw a good amount of ice time as a forward, especially on the power play because he was absolutely immovable from the front of the net. He'd get in there and screen, with the hands, speed and skills to make plays. There's nothing he couldn't do.
Had it not been for his dedication to the defensive side of the game, it's likely Stevens would have scored even more goals. But rather than being up on the ice, looking for points, he'd pull back and play both ends.
His ability to handle the puck and pass as well as he can read plays sets him apart from other great players in the league. These days, because of the trap and similar tactics, many young defensemen know their own area of the ice, but they can't read everything going on. Stevens has the entire ice covered because he sees things more quickly than many of his teammates do.
Back to the future ...
I can't predict when Stevens will hang up his skates. I do, however, know that he'll be around as long as he wants to be. He will know when he can no longer perform the way he wants. And knowing his all-or-nothing attitude, I can't imagine he'd have the patience to sit around and be a sixth or seventh defenseman.
I certainly wouldn't be surprised if, after he retires, Stevens stays in hockey in some capacity. When you've been dedicated to the game for as long as he has, it's tough to just walk away. Maybe he'll coach junior hockey or stay in the NHL. I'm sure any team would welcome his incredible personality and know-how. There's no doubt that any player would benefit from his experience and expertise.
Brian Engblom is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He played 11 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman and was on three Stanley Cup-winning teams in six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.
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