Last week there was a purplish mouse under the right eye and a nick over the left eyebrow on the happy and handsome face of New Jersey Devils center Jason Arnott, but the lasting scars were hidden. They were caused by growing pains, the result of his having been thrown into the NHL spotlight as a teenage phenom before he was ready for the attention and the pressure. At 25 he has again found a home-but a comfortable one—in the headlines, just as he found a home above teammate Scott Stevens's garage 2� years ago. When Arnott was traded to New Jersey in January 1998, the Stevenses (Scott, his wife, Donna, and their three young children) treated him to home cooking, sage advice and multiple viewings of The Lion King.
Arnott moved out of the Stevenses' house a few months later. These days he lives in the kitchen of Dallas Stars goalie Ed Belfour. Arnott also has a pied-�-terre in the Stars' brains, a place so addled that the defending Stanley Cup champions can't seem to figure out that when a playoff series is best-of-seven, they don't have to play seven games. The price Arnott pays for living so close to Belfour is steep—Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher extracts a heavy toll on crease crashers—but the views are spectacular. If Arnott gazes out he can see the Cup, which was one victory away following the Devils' 3-1 win on Monday night in Game 4 on the Slurpee otherwise known as Reunion Arena ice.
In the finals New Jersey has exposed Dallas's weaknesses, forcing the Stars back on their heels with superior size and speed. Dallas seems to derive a certain satisfaction in testing its elasticity by bouncing back from some of the most awful postseason games ever played by a certifiably good club, but Arnott mostly has proved to be more than either Mike Modano or, at times, Guy Carbonneau can handle. The 40-year-old Carbonneau lives for responsibility—after his Montreal Canadiens lost Game 1 of the 1993 Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings, he begged to play head-to-head against Wayne Gretzky—but on his first shift against Arnott in Game 3 last Saturday the Devils had two good chances before scoring when Arnott split the defense and shoveled the puck past the poke-checking Belfour. Arnott's effort, stunning more for its will than its skill, tied the score in what would become a 2-1 Devils win. "What I saw there was what Jason used to lack: second effort," New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello said afterward. "That was a second-effort goal, a goal that picks up the bench, a competitor's goal."
Lamoriello traded for Arnott in what Wall Street would term a value play. Arnott had been the No. 1 draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers in 1993, and he'd scored 33 goals in '93-94, a total no rookie has since surpassed. His career stagnated thereafter, a victim of heightened expectations and a startlingly low level of maturity. In 1995 Arnott fathered a child out of wedlock. He earned a reputation in Edmonton for driving so fast that Glen Sather, the Oilers' president, bought him a $300 radar detector. Then, after a desultory loss to the Winnipeg Jets in '95, he uttered the immortal line, "I just wasn't into it tonight."
That quote stayed with him like "I am not a crook" did with Richard Nixon. The working-class Oilers fans could handle the breakup of their dynasty, but sloth from a first-round dilettante was out of the question. A generation of stars left Edmonton to seek riches elsewhere. Arnott, whose passion for the game was questioned, had to be jettisoned like ballast.
"He was a typical Oiler player when he started there—all revved up, 100 miles an hour, full-court press," says Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock, a native Edmontonian. "At the end of his [ Oilers] career he was frustrated. He wore that pressure poorly. Now he's free. He uses his size [6'4", 225 pounds] to his advantage better defensively than he used to. In Edmonton his game started and ended with the puck, but he's a strong positional player now and, with that size, very effective."
His transformation was laborious. When the Devils acquired him for disgruntled forward Bill Guerin, Arnott, who'd always been a center, was told to play right wing on a line with veteran playmaking center Doug Gilmour. Arnott responded with five goals in 35 games, the exact number he'd had in the first half of the season in Edmonton. He continued to flounder with the Devils until December 1998, when Robbie Ftorek, New Jersey's coach at the time, decided to thrust him between flashy young Czech forwards Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora.
"We were all young guys who had started out well but knew we could play better," recalls Sykora, 23. "As soon as we got together, I felt we could get something going. Arnie has the big shot. Me and Patty are on the puck a little more. We could learn from him, how to shoot and go to the net and to hit, and he could learn from us some passes and how to use the boards."
In an era that emphasizes duos, such as Dallas's Modano and Brett Hull, a trio that sticks together for almost two years is, like Arnott's physique, practically carved in stone. Devils coach Larry Robinson broke up Arnott, Elias and Sykora when he took over for the fired Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season—he wished he had done the same in Game 2, a 2-1 Dallas win, when neither Elias nor Sykora showed legs or grit—but they were reunited after two games, much to Arnott's delight. The Czechs have helped Arnott grow on and off the ice. "They've changed me as a player by bringing the fun back into the game," Arnott said after getting four points in a 7-3 victory in Game 1. "They've also brought me back to life."
The trio often eats dinner together on the road, discussing anything but hockey. They talk of their backgrounds, their lives. "To see these guys, away from their parents for a long time, on their own, really enjoying it, that opened my eyes," Arnott says. He helps Elias and Sykora with English, and they have taught him enough profane Czech words that he could get a job on late-night cable in Prague.