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September 7, 2005 - Devils' loss is opponents' gain

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Devils' loss is opponents' gain
Shawn P. Roarke / Special to
Posted: 9 hours ago
New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens was about actions, not words, throughout his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to find the one word that encapsulates Stevens as he walks away from the game he dominated for two decades.

Many will try, finding a modicum of success with words like rugged, intense, old-school, determined, physical and hard-hitting — as they attempt to capture Stevens' essence in the odes offered after his retirement proclamation Tuesday afternoon. But, those wordsmiths will only be telling a part of the story. For as intimidating a presence as Stevens could cast each time he stepped on the ice with that trademark scowl stitched across his face, Stevens was about much more than the bone-rattling hits that made him both famous and feared.

Meaning each of those above words is to limiting in its scope.

Perhaps, honest is a more fitting platitude to employ.

Because, if nothing else, Stevens was always honest — not in the honest Abe Lincoln way, but rather in the way he approached his craft.

Each and every day, he gave an honest effort to his team, to his teammates and to the sport he loved. And, despite howls to the contrary to the fans in Philadelphia, Stevens — the Devils captain, and, perhaps more importantly the team's conscience — played the game in an honest fashion.

He gave no quarter on the ice, but he asked for none in return.

He regularly delivered hits — clean, vicious checks — that separated players from their senses. But, for him to do any less would be a lie — a disservice to both his talent as perhaps the game's best hitter and his nature as one of his generation's most feared competitors.

Scott Stevens helped the Devils win three Stanley Cups. (Dave Sandford / Getty Images)

Tuesday, that honesty reared its head again as the 41-year-old defenseman put his NHL career to rest, announcing that he would not return to the Devils for the 2005-06 season. Simply put, the mind was no longer willing to follow the edicts of a body that both doled out and absorbed punishment without regard to physical consequences.

"I think the game is more mental than physical," said Stevens. "You have to be in tremendous shape, but you have to want to do it in your head. At this point in my career, I didn't think I could put the mental parts there every day, and that's a big part of playing this game."

Part of the reason Stevens can't put the mental parts together every day is because he is still struggling with a nasty bout of post-concussion syndrome that first cropped up in the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs and was further exacerbated during the following season, causing him to miss the final half of the regular season, as well as a first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia.

Even a year without hockey, courtesy of the NHL lockout, could not restore Stevens completely.

Consequently, he decided to walk away, too honest to offer up anything less than 100 percent to a Devils team desperate for help on the blue line after the defection of Scott Niedermayer to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

And, it's not because the other Devils would not accept a limited Stevens.

"It's just the presence he has on the ice," said Martin Brodeur, the Devils' goalie. "Everybody knows that when he is on the ice, everybody has to keep their heads up. It makes it a lot tougher on an opponent to come in and make plays without knowing where Scott Stevens is at all times. So, the liberties that people took offensively against us weren't maybe as great as against teams that don't have a guy that is as powerful physically as he was. Definitely, there is going to be an adjustment for all our defensive crew for next season."

Most New Jersey players feel the same way. Each has seen their captain do something superhuman.

Some remember the career-changing thunderclap he delivered to the hulking Eric Lindros in one playoff run. Others remember the devastating center-ice hit he delivered to Detroit's Slava Kozlov, or perhaps the menacing glare and the mouthed words of promised mayhem issued to Dino Ciccarelli as Kozlov lay prone on the ice. Both actions announced New Jersey's intent to be competitive in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. Still, others remember the back-to-back hits he delivered during a playoff series against Carolina that incapacitated Ron Francis and Shane Willis. More recently, it was the predatory open-ice hit that knocked out Paul Kariya during the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.

Players throughout the league remember those hits; filing them away in the recesses of the brain where they can be brought forward again to warn of danger each time No. 4 threw his legs over the boards for another shift.

Now, those disturbing images can be put to rest, and the liberties Brodeur spoke of can once again be taken.

"I played against Scotty for a lot of years, and he is a fierce competitor; and he is a winner," said Keith Primeau, Philadelphia's captain. "I know from first-hand experience after playing New Jersey in the first round that they a great team; well-prepared, but it was just a different feel without Scotty there. He is that physical presence, as Marty said. He'll be sorely missed on their behalf, but not so much on our part."

There are countless forwards throughout the league who feel the same way as Primeau today.

But, in the end, anyone that appreciates hockey played the way it was meant to be played — with an all-out commitment and blinding passion — should honestly miss Stevens today.