Stevens made his mark on the NHL
Tuesday was a day for sighs around the National Hockey League.
For Scott Stevens and the New Jersey Devils, there was a sigh of resignation at confronting Stevens' decision to retire, bringing to a close a certain Hall of Fame career and closing a chapter in the history of the near-dynastic Devils that will be almost impossible to replicate.
The rest of the sighs were purely of relief from opposing forwards who will no longer have to worry about having their heads handed to them at any moment while facing Stevens.
In a week that saw Jerry Rice, the finest wide receiver in pro football, retire teary-eyed after finding he couldn't keep up during training camp in Denver, it was somehow gratifying to listen to Stevens calmly discuss how he'd tasted retirement during the lockout and found it satisfying.
"I guess I feel a little relieved now. I've been kind of dragging my feet on this," Stevens admitted during a conference call Tuesday afternoon. "It's time."
No farewell tour of the NHL. No bitterness over the lockout that might have robbed him of one more run at a Cup or at least the deserved fanfare of a departing warrior.
Stevens seemed surprised at the notion that he'd been cheated of anything.
"No. it's just part of the way things work out," he said.
"I'm not looking at a final year and saying goodbye. I think I'll just go on my way," he said.
Stevens, 41, is less a victim of the lockout than he is time itself.
Twenty-two seasons is a staggeringly long time for any NHLer, exponentially longer for a player who played in the punishing fashion that was Stevens' trademark.
Claiming he was 100 percent healthy, Stevens said it was the mental aspect of playing his style that finally told him it was time.
"I think the game is more mental than physical. You have to be in tremendous shape but you have to want to do it in your head," Stevens said. "At this point in my career, I didn't think I could put the mental parts there every day and that's a big part of playing this game."
Instead, Stevens' mental parts are with his daughter Kaitlin, who began high school a year ago when the lockout started; his son, Ryan, who is a freshman this season; and his youngest daughter, Kara.
"It's time to focus on them," Stevens said.
Stevens' retirement and the new NHL landscape with its emphasis on wide-open play are mutually exclusive. Stevens' skills have not appreciably eroded even with the passage of time and physicality will always be a requirement for elite teams. Nonetheless, this seems a natural break point for the defenseman.
With three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP from 2000, Stevens has nothing to prove to anyone.
Stevens entered the NHL as an 18-year-old in 1982, the Washington Capitals' first pick, fifth overall. In his last year of junior in Kitchener he was voted by the league's coaches as best bodychecker, a harbinger of things to come. Twenty-two seasons later he never played a game in the minors.
Although he would put up impressive offensive numbers, scoring on his first NHL shot and producing eight seasons of 50 points or more, the last decade saw Stevens evolve into a defensive force.
That evolution was the catalyst to three Cup wins for the Devils. The first came in 1995, when they swept the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings. The second came in 2000, when the Devils erased a 3-1 deficit against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals before outdueling defending Cup champion Dallas in the finals. The third Cup win came in 2003 against upstart Anaheim, a kind of championship icing on Stevens' career cake. It was also a playoff run that would figure prominently in Stevens' retirement.
In the second round of the '04 playoffs, Stevens took a Pavel Kubina slap shot to the ear. He left the game but returned for the next game and scored a goal. Tuesday he acknowledged those playoffs were "very tough" on him and his family and that perhaps he shouldn't have continued to play during that run. "Maybe I didn't make some of the right decisions," he said. "Maybe I had a price to pay but I'm old-school."
Although the Devils bested the Mighty Ducks in a grueling seven-game series that featured a trademark Stevens hit on Paul Kariya in Game 6, Stevens played in only 38 games the following season. While suffering from the flu in January 2004 he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and missed the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.
There are no built-in signposts in hockey to assess the impact of a defensive player like Stevens, no sacks to record, no putouts to count up, no blocked shots to point to. And so the tale of greatness must be compiled more slowly. Stevens' greatness has been documented through a collection of hits that tell a greater story.
There was Stevens' crushing hit on Slava Kozlov during the 1995 final against Detroit that sent a signal to the Wings and the rest of the NHL that the Devils had arrived. There was Stevens' concussion-inducing hit on Eric Lindros during Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals that cost Lindros the entire 2000-01 season and helped secure playoff MVP honors for Stevens. Ron Francis, Kariya ... the list of players subjected to Stevens' particular brand of hockey justice goes on.
Unlike other imposing defensemen (Bryan Marchment and Darius Kasparaitis come to mind), Stevens was rarely if ever accused of being dirty. During the 2003 finals the NHL made the unusual move of putting out a release announcing that Stevens' thunderous hit on Kariya within the rules.
While the hits are the exclamation points to Stevens' story there is a whole subtext belonging to the hits that was not recorded. Hits that never took place because opposing players turned away rather than encounter Stevens, players who felt Stevens' presence and flinched rather than pursuing a pass, teams that altered their style of play to avoid him in the way NFL teams try to avoid linebacker Ray Lewis.
In Stevens' absence, opponents tell a story of a decidedly different Devils team.
Doing his best to be diplomatic given the presence of Stevens' teammate Martin Brodeur on a league-organized conference call to help promote the start of training camp next week, Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau explained that the Devils were simply a different team to play against when Stevens was out of the lineup.
"There was just a different feel without Scotty there," said Primeau, whose Flyers cruised past the Devils in five games during a first-round matchup in the spring of 2004.
"He'll be sorely missed on their behalf, not necessarily so much on our part," he said.
It's hard to imagine higher praise.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.