Scott Stevens had a lot thrown at him in the past 10 days: die scrutiny of the hockey world, a pocket knife, a battery, invective. Stevens brooded. Behind his menacing goatee and cobalt-blue eyes, the New Jersey Devils' captain is remarkably sensitive—maybe not as sensitive as the rattled brains of Carolina Hurricanes forwards Shane Willis and Ron Francis, the third and fourth players Stevens has knocked out with concussions in his past three playoff series, but sensitive all the same. Last week Stevens seemed troubled by the injuries and by the accompanying media suggestions that he had hit Willis unfairly because only 12 seconds remained in a lopsided Game 2, and that he had no business pulverizing a player as revered as Francis in Game 3.
For 19 years Stevens has been playing in a league in which no one takes a knee with a four-goal lead in the final minute, in which the coach doesn't wave in a right wing to play goal in a blowout, in which garbage time exists only when some fan hurls a D cell toward him. Stevens sees the game in black and white, not in shades of green (like the still maturing rookie, Willis) or gray (like the wizened 38-year-old, Francis). Stevens, 37, plays old-time hockey, not how-much-time-is-on-the-clock hockey.
"Do I need a list of players that I have to show more respect to?" Stevens asked with a tight smile last Saturday. "Do I have to know their birthdays? And there's a timing thing, too, right? It's a 60-minute game, but maybe not for me."
The Hurricanes stretched New Jersey to six games before losing 5-1 at home on Sunday, a series noteworthy because Carolina chipped the Devils' veneer of invincibility, but more likely to be remembered for Stevens's train wrecks. There were so many worthy hits, but then Stevens always has been a classic rocker. He didn't stop with Willis, who was left stunned and bleeding, or with Francis, who looked as if he had spent an hour on a Tilt-a-Whirl as he skated and stumbled and crawled toward the bench in a sickening display. In the first period of Game 4, Stevens caught Craig Adams with a stunning open-ice check and later nailed Sami Kapanen with his most seismic hit of the season.
To Stevens's surprise, in the wake of the Kapanen check—and there could have been a wake after that blast, though Kapanen skated away uninjured, as Adams had earlier—no one had any postgame questions or complaints. He had buried his shoulder into two more Hurricanes forwards, but because there was no body count after Carolina's 3-2 overtime win, Stevens's handiwork had been ignored. The critical thing to remember is that Stevens hits cleanly. During his NHL career he has one fewer elbowing penalty (four) than there have been presidential elections.
Maybe he was overreacting to a few critics, but Stevens, who KO'd the Philadelphia Flyers' Daymond Langkow and Eric Lindros in last year's Eastern Conference finals, thought he was being unfairly branded as Concussion Man, the brute who puts men to sleep quicker than Brahms' Lullaby. For Stevens, who wants his legacy to be as hockey's best hitter, brooding turned to seething, and on the morning of Game 5, he snapped. Asked a question about the marvelous sensation an explosive body check must give, Stevens soliloquized about nameless players who don't check cleanly and tore into those who don't want to do the dirty work of hitting. For five minutes he practically spit die words, his forefinger occasionally jabbing the air, the muscles around his eyes twitching.
"I've been playing for 19 years and I haven't changed my style," Stevens said, "but it's like suddenly everyone has started seeing Scott Stevens. It's like I've just learned to hit. I'm past that now. I'm fed up. And you know what? I'm actually a little angry, and when I'm angry... you don't want to see me angry."
On the flight to Raleigh before Game 3, Stevens and rookie defenseman Colin White had watched Stevens's star turn in Don Cherry's Rock 'em Sock 'em Hockey Volume 12 on DVD. Stevens, to his regret, has no compilation of his greatest hits. He does, however, have a personal fight tape he pops into the VCR once in a while. Those bouts are mostly from die 1980s, when his wires would cross and he would duke it out with some heavyweight, and David Poile, his former general manager with the Washington Capitals, would go crazy because his team would be losing a rising star for five minutes while the other club was only without its goon. The NHL was still a 21-team frontier town in those days, and Stevens was marking his territory with his fists. He was a force, talented enough to have five straight 50-point seasons in the '80s and hotheaded enough to average 216 minutes in penalties along the way. He was a superb practitioner of the physical arts, but Stevens was a jangle of emotions, easily distracted, settling scores while giving up too many.
Then came June 20,1995-Stevens's career changed that night, not because he changed—Stevens already was becoming a more responsible defenseman and a better leader—but because his shoulder to the jaw of the Detroit Red Wings' Slava Kozlov was so jarring that it woke up the hockey world. Later Kozlov would describe the hit in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals as something out of a Road Runner cartoon, like Wile E. Coyote going splat, a perfect analogy because only cartoon violence could approximate its explosiveness. Still, what happened in the moments after that hit changed the perception of Stevens around the league. With Kozlov down and the Red Wings chirping from the bench, Stevens turned to Dino Ciccarelli, the mouthiest Wing, and said, "You're next."
"In some ways the Kozlov hit did reinvent Scott," says New Jersey coach Larry Robinson, then a Devils assistant. "That was Scott's first Cup, and so much of our success in that series was based on that hit, how much confidence it gave us. The check became associated with the Cup, and Cups change people's perception."