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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Stevens Is Keeping His Emotions in Check Too

May 29, 2003|Helene Elliott

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ask Devil defenseman Scott Stevens how to hammer a nail and he'll tell you how to build a house.

"You ask one question and he'll give you the whole scenario," teammate Scott Gomez said. "He's so into the game and so intense.

"He's not a rah-rah kind of guy, but you see his eyes and you feed off it. You get a guy like that leading by example, there's no greater leadership."

Duck General Manager Bryan Murray knew that long ago. He didn't need confirmation in the form of the solid, rugged game Stevens played Tuesday to set the tone for the 3-0 victory that gave New Jersey a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals.

Murray was Stevens' first coach, with the Washington Capitals. Stevens arrived at training camp in the fall of 1982 a hotshot kid who had been drafted fifth overall because of his thunderous hitting -- and despite his temper. Murray helped steer him toward an outstanding career that has led their paths to intersect again, so many years later.

"He was a little more emotional at the beginning of his career and sometimes he'd take penalties," Murray said. "The two minutes were OK, but he'd sometimes get an additional 10 [misconduct] because he talked so much.

"He's always been, since he was 18 and stepped onto the ice at the Capital Center for the first time, a hard-nosed competitor and fiery. He always wanted to be a very important player, and he's made himself that and much more."

Stevens, 39, has transformed himself into a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils. And tonight, when the finals resume at Continental Airlines Arena, he will vault past Larry Robinson into fourth place on the list of playoff appearances, at 227.

"I don't really pay attention to that. I wasn't aware of it until someone told me," the Devil captain said Wednesday after practice. "It will probably mean more to me when I'm done playing."

His longevity is due, in part, to Murray's insistence that he learn to control his emotions because he was far more valuable on the ice than sitting out. Stevens, intent on living up to his wild-man reputation, threw his 6-foot-2, 215-pound body around with abandon and threw punches with equal passion.

He had 195 penalty minutes in his first season, 1982-83, and peaked at 283 in 1986-87. But he hasn't exceeded 100 the last four seasons, and has been no less effective.

"I had a lot of intensity and emotions and that's all good," Stevens said, "but sometimes it can be negative. When you're breaking into the league you have to fight a lot of battles, but after two or three years Bryan made me feel [being on the ice] was more important than being in the penalty box. He said, 'We need you on the ice,' and it made me realize he was right."

Opponents realized it too.

"He's been a rock back there ever since he started," said Duck winger Steve Thomas, a veteran of 19 NHL seasons and more hits from Stevens than he can count.

"I think he's become better over the years. There are things he can't do now that he could do when he was younger, but he's able to know his limitations. He's a solid defenseman. He moves the puck well and takes the body. He's a guy you have to know where he is on the ice when you're out there."

Stevens is so widely respected, he was the subject of the only non-robotic comment from the Ducks about the Devils before the series began.

Winger Dan Bylsma told ESPN Radio last week he hoped the Ducks would play the Devils "because I'd really like to shake Scott Stevens' hand when he's congratulating me on winning the Stanley Cup," a comment that was posted on the bulletin board in the Devils' locker room. Bylsma said he meant to express admiration, not taunt or denigrate the man who was voted the most valuable player in the Devils' 2000 Stanley Cup drive.

"The context of the statement was they're a great team, so it would be significant that if I'm shaking hands with the New Jersey Devils. It would mean we beat them," Bylsma said. "He's a warrior that embodies their team and I've played against him for years.

"When we beat the Detroit Red Wings it was significant because Steve Yzerman was one of my heroes growing up. That's why it's so significant playing against Scott Stevens. You're going to see highlight checks in this series by Scott Stevens."

The Ducks will certainly see a lot of Stevens, who played a game-high 27 minutes 47 seconds Tuesday. "I said to somebody after the game he looks like he can play until he's 50," Murray said. "He's solid. It's all positional with Scotty, and strength."

Stevens said the only thing that might keep him from playing longer is "I don't think I can handle you [reporters] talking about my age.

"Twenty-one years is a long time, but I'm enjoying it."

He has enjoyed New Jersey enough to forgo free agency and the windfall he'd find if he put himself up for bids and instead take less money to stay with the Devils. Less being relative, because he and goalie Martin Brodeur -- who also has passed on free agency -- each earned $6.9 million this season.

"I like the organization. I like their beliefs," he said. "What they want and what I want is the same, to be successful and have a chance to win."

Which, in the end, simply hits the nail on the head.

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