The Hits Keep Coming By cleanly laying out two Hurricanes, New Jersey captain Scott Stevens cemented his reputation as one of the game's best bangers ever

April 29, 2001

Scott Stevens had a lot thrown at him in the past 10 days: the
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 the 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 the 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."

With the exception of Detroit's Steve Yzerman, no elite player of
the postexpansion era has transformed his game in his 30s as
successfully as Stevens. The process started in 1993-94, when new
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire and Robinson, a Hall of Fame
defenseman, started tinkering with his play. Even while Stevens
was putting together a career-best 78 points and an NHL-leading
+53 rating that season, they were stressing angles, urging him to
keep his stick on the ice when checking, to deflect
passes--techniques intended to move him into an even more
defensive role. "I remember talking with Larry after games in
which Scott didn't have a point, and we were agreeing he had
played a perfect game," says Lemaire, the Minnesota Wild coach.
"He didn't give up anything. Didn't make a mistake. Maybe he had
a big hit, which is tougher now than it used to be because
players are bigger and stronger."

The craft of bodychecking is grounded in the physical tools of
equilibrium and strength--Stevens is a chiseled 6'1" and 215
pounds--but is most dependent on will, timing and technique. Since
his days as a high school linebacker in Kitchener, Ont.,
Stevens's desire to hit has been obvious. ("Sometimes I think I
should have stayed a football player," he says, "because all you
do is hit, and nobody criticizes you for it.") His timing is
innate, a gift that makes him as unique in his destructive
fashion as Wayne Gretzky was in his creative way. "Know how
Gretzky could see a play two jumps before it developed?" Devils
defenseman Ken Daneyko says. "Scott's like that with hitting,
reading the hit two moves before it happens."

"You can see a guy weaving," Stevens says. "Sometimes there's a
player in front screening the guy. I see him behind the screen,
he steps out, and I'm there. You hit with the shoulder and use
your legs to generate power. Boom." Stevens says it softly,
belying his mad-dog image. "Or I'll see a guy coming, and when he
starts to cut toward me, I'll get on my horse so when he does
make his turn, I'm coming. I'm in his line, and there's no way
I'm getting out of it. You know, I do a lot of things out there,
but hitting is what I do best."

He hit his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and his
second Stanley Cup last year, putting together a superb body of
work with his body. He blanketed the Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure
in the first round, clocked the Toronto Maple Leafs' Kevyn Adams,
Tomas Kaberle and Tie Domi in Round 2 and concussed Langkow and
Lindros in the third.

After the series-clincher against the Hurricanes on Sunday,
Stevens had a longer-than-usual chat on the handshake line with
Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "He told me all those hits were
clean," says Stevens. "Kapanen said the same thing. It's nice to
hear it from guys you play against."

Stevens didn't hear words like that last spring when coach Pat
Quinn, whose Maple Leafs face the Devils in Round 2 this week,
implied that he was a borderline dirty player, a remark that
might have been nothing more than Quinn seeking an edge with
referees. But Stevens, who had only three minor penalties in 23
playoff games last season, filed that away for future reference.
"It annoys me," Stevens says. "When I hear that, it makes me want
to be nastier against them. I'm a bit like that."

Stevens is actually a little angry...and you don't want to see
him angry.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGG FORWERCK Going down As Kapanen found out in the series, Stevens packs a powerful wallop. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Two-way threat Although he's known for his physical play, Stevens can also pitch in offensively.

"I'm a little angry," Stevens said after his hits were
questioned. "And when I'm angry...you don't want to see me
angry."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)