On February 3, 2006, the New Jersey Devils retired a uniform number for the first time in franchise history: Scott Stevens' #4. As video tributes and teammate reflections were aired over the course of that night's ceremony, many words were brought up which characterized the man: fierce, hard-nosed, intense, intimidating, energetic, respected, competitive, heart-and-soul, a winner, a leader, a work-horse.
He is hockey's ultimate warrior.
Scott Stevens played in 1,635 regular season games and 233 playoff games, both NHL records among defensemen. He skated in thirteen All-Star Games. He captained the Devils to three unforgettable Stanley Cup championships. Simply put, Scotty Stevens was a hockey legend with an on-ice presence unparalleled in NHL history.
Given his remarkable legacy with the Devils, people often forget that he was a veteran of nine seasons coming into New Jersey. Born and bred in Kitchener, Ontario, Stevens was selected fifth overall by the Washington Capitals in the 1982 NHL Draft. During his time in D.C., he enjoyed moderate individual and team success. The Capitals housed one of the deepest defensive corps during the 1980s (think Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher and Larry Murphy), and so Stevens developed a niche for himself as a classical, rugged, stay-at-home defenseman who specialized in dealing punishing checks and breaking down the opposition's flow. While he had the ability to put up solid offensive numbers, he understood that playing within the system for the greater good of the team took precedence above all else.
Stevens made headlines during the early '90s with his involvement in two massive, high-salary transactions. The first was in July 1990, when, as a restricted free agent, he signed a four-year contract with the St. Louis Blues worth a then-overwhelming $5.145 million. In return, St. Louis had to ship a whopping five first-round draft picks the other way as compensation (two of which ended up being Washington mainstays Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt). One year later, in July 1991, with the assistance of an arbitrator, the Blues were forced to ship Stevens to New Jersey as compensation for their signing of Brendan Shanahan. Both transactions created a ripple effect around the league as player salaries spiralled out of control, ultimately culminating in the 1995 NHL Lockout.
Although initially upset about going to New Jersey, Stevens became an instant fan favorite at the Meadowlands. After a single season, he was awarded for his leadership with the team captaincy, a position he would hold for the balance of his career. In 1993-94, Stevens exploded offensively with 78 points and led the league in plus-minus with +53. (It is worth noting that not once in his 22 seasons did he have a plus-minus rating in the red, a truly remarkable feat.)
Stevens is quick to credit the Devils, particularly coaches Larry Robinson and Jacques Lemaire, for developing him into a complete defenseman.
"I'm more knowledgeable, more patient,'' Stevens said. "I've learned a lot here under Jacques and Larry about playing defense and good position. Just goes to show, you never stop learning. I probably played over 10 years, then I came here and was taught a lot of new things.''
In the spring of 1994, Stevens, coupled with an emerging core nucleus of players such as Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer, came within a whisker of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The following, lockout-abbreviated season proved to be kinder, as Stevens helped guide the Devils to their first-ever Stanley Cup. Two more Cups would follow, including a Conn Smythe-winning performance for Stevens during their run in 2000.
Asked about the secret to his success over the years, Stevens said, "Every year, I always felt that I had to make the team. I felt every training camp I had to prove myself. I never took anything for granted." In spite of his accomplishments and larger-than-life stature, Stevens always carried with him a blue-collar work ethic, a deep Canadian-rooted humility, and an awe of the game he played.
In New Jersey, Stevens gained league-wide notoriety for his devastating open-ice hits, many of which rendered opponents unconscious. Notable victims of Scott Stevens hits in the past include Slava Kozlov during the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, Eric Lindros during the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, and Paul Kariya during the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals. They didn't call him "Captain Crunch" for nothing! (See video below.)
As devastating as his hits were, they were always clean and legal. One NHL broadcast mentioned that only three times in his entire NHL career had Stevens been tagged for elbowing.
"With Scott, you know exactly what you're going to get from him," Lindros said of his longtime nemesis. "There's no question, you're aware of his presence on the ice. He's still definitely a premier defenseman in the league because of the desire he has on the ice. His style out on the ice certainly shows how much he wants to win."
"Playing against Scotty, you had to be alert. It was no secret that he's had some pretty big hits. That's in your mind. You need to have a sense of where he is," added Joe Nieuwendyk.
Stevens' international resume was loaded as well. He represented Canada at the '98 Winter Olympics, the '96 World Cup of Hockey, the '91 Canada Cup, and four World Championships during the '80s. Interestingly, during the '89 World Championships, Stevens took a skate to the face, courtesy of his boyhood idol Borje Salming, which resulted in a gash requiring 88 stitches to seal up. Ever the warrior, Stevens missed a mere game, and, wearing a protective visor, came back to score the game-winning goal against Czechoslovakia, giving Canada the silver medal. This is but one in a vast sea of anecdotes which capture Stevens' love for the game and drive to be on top.
Despite his highly decorated resume, somehow Scott Stevens never won a Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. It is almost mind-boggling that he was never so recognized.
"I've always said that Scott Stevens should've won a Norris Trophy at some point in his career," former teammate Bobby Holik said. "Well, they don't give out the Norris Trophy in the Playoffs, but I'm his biggest fan. As a hockey player, he's one of a kind."
Somehow I don't think Scott Stevens would trade any of his Stanley Cups or his Conn Smythe Trophy for a Norris Trophy.
Special thanks to Vikash Khanna.