- Jim Kelley
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- It would be wrong to say Scott Stevens' decision not to play hockey this season came as a surprise to some of his teammates. The New Jersey defenseman had, after all, been dealing with the impact of a serious concussion dating back to the 2003-04 season with precious little success.
Still, teammates at the USA Hockey training center were taken aback when news filtered out officially on Tuesday.
"He's been such a big part of our team, our leader through three Stanley Cups and all," said Scott Gomez a forward who won three Stanley Cups with Stevens. "I guess I knew that this was coming, but it still comes as a surprise in that now it's out there. I guess we'll have to deal with it as a certainty now."
Gomez is here along with New Jersey teammates Brian Rafalski and Brian Gionta taking part in the U.S. evaluation camp for 2006 Olympic prospects. Rafalski and Gionta were on the ice when the word trickled into the World Arena and were not immediately available for comment.
Gomez said it would be a totally different experience going into a season knowing the rock of the New Jersey defensive corps would not be on the ice, but it was one he was prepared to deal with.
"We still have the best goaltender in the world [Martin Brodeur] and it starts from there," he said. "We have an experienced team and it seems that when we lose players, others step in to take their place. It's going to be different and difficult without Scotty back there, it will take some getting used to, but I guess it means that the rest of us will have to step up and take more responsibility. A lot of us grew up as team with Scotty being one of the anchors of the team. Now it falls to us to grow up a bit more and shoulder more of the responsibility."
Stevens wasn't the most talented defenseman on the New Jersey roster, but in addition to being its most ferocious hitter and intense competitor, he was the team's leader and, in many ways, its conscience.
When Stevens spoke, people listened and when he hit, there were times -- many times -- when people didn't get up. To see him not able to continue is something that was hard for the Devils to comprehend.
"I know we're not going to be able to replace him," Gomez said. "You don't replace a guy like that, you just try to compensate for his not being here ... The thing to think about now is that he gets healthy again and gets on with whatever he's going to do next."
Said Gionta: We knew, most of us anyway, that this day was coming. We tried not to think about it because he's like an icon to us. You just see him in a different way, but most of us knew he wasn't doing all that great.
"The amazing thing is that he took a shot to the head like he did and still kept playing. That's the kind of player he was for us. I guess he's paying a price for that now, a hockey puck to the head is a pretty dangerous thing and he's suffering the consequences of that, but when it happened, he just kept playing. He couldn't quit.
"In the time I've been there he was what the Devils are all about," Gionta added. "He was our leader our captain, but in a bigger sense of the word. He was our leader on the ice, but even more so in the room. If he said something everyone understood that was the way it was to be. Just in his leadership alone, it's a huge loss.
Added Rafalski: "It's a tough blow, losing him and [Scott] Nidermayer in the same year. That's a big part of the identity of our club."
15dScott Burnside and Craig Custance