NEWARK, N.J. – Kris King jokes that he loved playing for the New York Rangers because his coach, Roger Neilson, just wanted him to get the puck to Mike Gartner and Darren Turcotte and get out of the way.
But for some reason, during one particular game a dozen years ago, somebody gave the puck back to him.
Scott Stevens saw King coming. Unfortunately, King did not see Stevens coming, and the forward became the latest victim of one of hockey’s most bone-crushing checkers.
“Am I still No. 7 on his top-10 hits list?” asked King, now the NHL’s senior vice president of hockey operations, laughing.
Informed, after a quick check of YouTube, that he indeed was, King said: “I went across the blue line not aware of who was on the ice, and I paid dearly for it. I don’t think I could breathe for 10 minutes after that one. Some guys are really strong and when they hit you, it hurts. But Scott hit straight through you, and your entire body hurt from your toes to your head after you picked yourself back up — however long after the fact that was.”
Stevens, hired by the Wild in June to be Bruce Boudreau’s first assistant, was one of the NHL’s most intimidating defensemen. The Hall of Famer played from 1982-2004. His 1,635 games are the second most by a defenseman in NHL history. Among blue-liners, his 908 points rank 12th and his 2,785 penalty minutes rank fourth. And he captained the New Jersey Devils, Saturday’s Wild opponent, from a middle-of-the-pack team in the early ’90s to three Stanley Cups in nine years.
But open-ice hitting was this imposing force’s specialty.
“He didn’t do it again to me,” King said, laughing. “I made sure of it.”
Opposing players — and even teammates in practice — had to be aware when Stevens was on the ice. If not, you thought you were free, then all of a sudden you were not.
Just ask Eric Lindros. Or Bob Bassen. Or Slava Kozlov. Or, on one frightening hit, Paul Kariya.
“Just ask Shane Willis and Ron Francis. Shane got helped off the ice, Ronnie made it the bench, we’re not sure how,” said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, who had a front-row seat to these chilling hits during the 2001 playoffs. “Scott played a pretty simple, smart, hard game, and it was always there. There was danger.
“It was a different time then. When a forward came across the blue line with his head down and they carried him off, it was his fault. Right now, the opposite is true.”
Added former teammate Martin Brodeur, the St. Louis Blues assistant GM who will attend Friday’s Wild-Devils game because a statue of himself is being dedicated outside Prudential Center: “He didn’t go out there and try to hurt people. It was a different era. If you had the puck and had your head down, well, then you’re going to get hit. Just keep your head up.”
And Stevens was fearless.
“I remember after he hit Kozlov [in the 1995 Final] and turned his helmet sideways so his nose was sticking out the earhole, every Detroit player started chirping,” said Tom Chorske, who arrived in New Jersey the same week as Stevens in 1991. “Scott looked down their bench and said, ‘I’m coming after you next. Then you. Then you,’ and he went down the line.
“That was the kind of leader he was. He made you stand taller.”
King, who’d know, said “there’s a few hits in those top-10s where we’d have him suspended for a little bit in today’s game, but in those days, he was delivering the biggest pop for sure.
“I think it’s a gift, too. Good hitters are hard to find, and for the most part he was clean. His timing was perfect. He could see a hit coming before it happened and he was able to get to that perfect position to deliver that good hit before the other guy was aware of it.”
It’s how you work
The first thing you notice about Stevens is how strong he is. Shake his enormous paw, and it feels like he broke your hand.
Former Devils teammate Jamie Langenbrunner remembers Stevens inviting a bunch of teammates to his hunting cabin in the Poconos after one season.
“We’re thinking we’re going up there to drink beer and hang out, but Scott had a different idea,” Langenbrunner said. “He proceeded to put us to work.”
Stevens was building a patio, so first the players had to haul bluestone from a nearby quarry.
“Me and Scott Gomez, Jay Pandolfo and Erik Rasmussen, we’re hauling these big slates, each grabbing an end,” Langenbrunner said. “Scott’s carrying each one alone. He had us chopping wood. We got the ax stuck in the wood, and we’re all trying to turn and crank the ax out. Scott’s just one-arm pounding the wood.”
Stevens was one of the original fitness freaks. Even at 52, he’s chiseled. His workouts at Xcel Energy Center are already talked about, maybe because of the grunting heard from the gym whenever he’s in there.
“You watch him walk around, he was just in amazing, amazing shape,” said King, drafted by Washington when Stevens was starring there partly because the Capitals felt Stevens was fighting too much. “Scott was one of the first guys I remember being just cut out of stone.
“There were rumors he did 1,000 sit-ups a day.”
Former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, now in Toronto, said everything Stevens did was to make certain he could play at a high level.
“You’re not going to see him at a fast-food chain, let’s put it that way,” Lamoriello said.
His intensity wasn’t phony.
“I remember going into the locker room once as a young guy, and I couldn’t open this door. Then, I couldn’t open the other door to the same room. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Brodeur. “Him and Claude Lemieux ... locked both doors [after clashing during practice] and went at it.”
“Things like that happen, and you move on,” Stevens said, smiling.
Stevens didn’t hold back in practice.
“If you were slacking, … as a young guy, he might have known that you ran off to New York City the night before with another single guy, and if you were kind of 80 percenting it in practice, he’d knock you right on your butt and say, ‘Get it together,’ ” Chorske said.
Stevens said, “We made sure we practiced at a high level, and I think it was healthy because we practiced like we played.”
“Scott Stevens, every shift he was willing to go 6 inches further than you were all over the ice,” said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who in 2000 coached the Dallas Stars team that lost to Conn Smythe Trophy-winning Stevens and the Devils in the Stanley Cup Final. “His competitive level was just higher than everybody on the ice, so not only was he dragging his team in the fight, he was pushing you out.”
Sacrificing points for defense
Stevens says he was never trying to hurt anybody.
“You live by the sword, die by the sword. I took my licks,” he said. “That’s why hockey’s a great game. There’s no out-of-bounds in hockey. It’s a fun, physical, grueling game. I felt bad when anyone got hurt. I played hard and I played to win and I’d do whatever it took. But I never liked seeing anyone get hurt.”
Former power forward Scott Mellanby, who battled with Stevens for years, says Stevens was one of the top two or three hardest guys he ever played against.
“He was tough, he was mean, he was honest,” Mellanby said. “I didn’t think he was a dirty player, but he’d make you pay to get to the front of the net.”
He was smart. Mellanby used to get ticked at Miami Arena because he could see Stevens staring at the Panthers bench with one leg over the boards.
“[Coach] Doug [MacLean] would say, ‘Robbie’s line,’ and [Rob Niedermayer] would just jump,” Mellanby said. “I’d say, ‘We have last change, guys,’ but by that point, it was too late. Stevens flew out on the ice.”
Early in his career, Stevens would get 60, 70 points a year. That changed his second year in New Jersey when Jacques Lemaire turned him into what Lamoriello called “one of the most unselfish players ever.”
“Jacques felt that he’d basically score more points if he shut down the other team’s top line,” Lamoriello said. “In other words, he convinced Scott that being a 30-35-point guy was just like being an 80-point scorer if you shut the top people down. Scott accepted that because he knew what it meant. Success.”
Teacher of the game
In June, Boudreau got a call from Scott Niedermayer letting him know Stevens, an analyst on NHL Network, wanted to get back into coaching. He drove to New Jersey to meet with Stevens, and after a couple-hour talk told GM Chuck Fletcher they had to hire him.
“Scott is a teacher,” said Lamoriello, who hired Stevens as everything from an assistant to development guy to a co-head coach in New Jersey. “He’s a student of the game and has an incredible way of explaining things to defensemen, whether they’re skilled, physical, defensive, so they understand. He touches all the right points with very few words.”
Fletcher witnessed that in July’s development camp.
“I had to make a phone call, so I went to the concourse, where it’s quieter and you have better reception,” Fletcher said. “I hear pucks being shot, and I look out there, and it’s Scott working with Brayden Chizen on how to walk the blue line, shoot one-timers, open up to receive passes, the small details.
“I’m thinking, ‘Here’s one of the great defensemen in the history of the game taking the time without anybody knowing to work with a seventh-round pick who’s going to be several years away from playing in the NHL, best-case scenario.’ ”
Stevens returns to New Jersey on Saturday to coach under the banner that shows his retired No. 4. He’s finally out of the St. Paul hotel he was living in for six weeks, having moved into a rental home with his wife, Donna. They have three children, and Friday night he had dinner with two of them who live in New York.
Stevens is feeling at home in Minnesota now. The Wild’s biggest strength is largely considered its blue line. Yes, the makeup is a lot different than the type of defenseman Stevens was, but he believes he can use the strengths (mobility, hockey sense, offensive ability) his defensemen do have and guide them to success.
“Minnesota is extremely fortunate to have him,” Lamoriello said. “You’re going to see some tremendous results with the defensemen, the penalty killing, everything. No matter what it is, he has a single focus to make the team better.”