The passage of time has stolen many of the details from Devils CEO/President/General Manager Lou Lamoriello. What he does remember from that late summer day in 1991 was a very small hotel room in Toronto, where he gathered with members of the St. Louis Blues front office to try to convince an arbitrator that the Devils should receive defenseman Scott Stevens as compensation for the loss of free agent Brendan Shanahan.
It was a detailed presentation put together by Devils executives Lamoriello, David Conte, Marshall Johnston, and Max McNab. All that was riding on the arbitrator’s decision was the future of two franchises and the course of NHL history.
“It was just a presentation,” Lamoriello recalled. “They presented their side and we presented ours. We shared facts. The wrinkle was we had lost a forward and we asked for a defenseman in return.” The Devils could have asked for Brett Hull but almost certainly would have been turned down because he was coming off an 86-goal season. They asked for Stevens instead.
“When they (the Blues) signed Brendan Shanahan, we had to look at the roster of the other team,” Lamoriello said. “At that time, you couldn’t compare Hull and Shanahan because you felt you were reaching. The player on that team who we wanted was Scott Stevens. It was a question of how could we ask for him when we lost a forward. “In our presentation, we said what he saved offensively by being a defenseman compensated for goals being scored. We felt what Stevens could bring to us was equal to what we had lost.”
The Blues offered forward Rod Brind’Amour and goalie Curtis Joseph in return. After stating their cases, the two sides waited. “We felt pretty good about our presentation,” Lamoriello remembered, “but naturally there is anxiety. Your team is going to be different one way or another. The goaltender they put in the package was hurt at the time. Scott Stevens was the player we wanted and he turned out to be our cornerstone.”
The ruling, which came down on September 3, 1991, changed everything. Maybe not immediately but soon enough. With Ken Daneyko already wearing No. 3, which Stevens had worn in Washington, and the No. 2 he wore in St. Louis already taken, the newcomer took No. 4. It is that number which will hang forever in the rafters near the three Stanley Cup Championship banners
Stevens helped bring to New Jersey. Lamoriello always knew how important that day would be, and so did the others who would play roles in winning those three Stanley Cup Championships in nine seasons. “By Lou bringing Scotty there and then getting Jacques Lemaire, he built that dynasty,” former Devils center Bobby Holik said. “If I were going to build a team, I’d start with a player like him. He’s the ultimate building block for anyone who wants to have success.”
Scott Niedermayer played only four games for the Devils that 1991-92 season but he would go on to play more games with Stevens (829) than anyone else in a Devils sweater. “I can remember when he came,” Niedermayer said. “It was sort of an awkward position for him to be in. As time progressed, he became a big part of everything. I look at him and Marty (Brodeur) as the two big guys on those championship teams. It was pretty unique how hard Scotty played the game. Not too many stars play that hard and that physical.”
Interestingly, it took Stevens some time before he accepted the ruling that uprooted him and his family in St. Louis. “To be honest, when I first came here we rented a townhouse for five years,” Stevens recalled. “We just weren’t sure if we were going to be here. Then we bought a house and there’s been no looking back.
Everything happens for a reason. The kids have been fortunate to stay in one spot for a long time. It’s all they’ll remember, and I’ve had the opportunity to win three Stanley Cups. There’s nothing better than that.” Lemaire’s first season behind the bench was 1993-94 and the Devils came within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time.
In a classic Eastern Conference Finals playoff series against the New York Rangers, the Devils lost game seven at Madison Square Garden in overtime. They would not be denied the following spring and it would be Stevens leading the way to the Devils first Cup.
Among the many moments in that electrifying ’95 run, two stand out. Stevens still distinctly remembers one of them. On May 10, 1995, in game three of the Devils first-round series with the Bruins at the Meadowlands, Stevens was drilled into the end boards by Boston forward Bryan Smolinski. He doesn’t remember much more. “I was hit by Smolinski. I skated to the bench and didn’t know it,” Stevens recalled. “I woke up on the trainer’s table and had no idea what had happened. That was bad. These days it probably would have been different. I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to play.”
He did not miss a game in that series and then rescued his teammates when the dream was in jeopardy of dying during the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils lost the opening game to the Penguins and struggled in game two. They did not want to go back to New Jersey in an 0-2 hole, and Stevens made sure it did not happen. He scored what proved to be the game-winning goal and the Devils went on to win four straight.
“I don’t remember a lot of things, but no question I remember that goal because it was late in the game and it gave us the win to get a split in Pittsburgh and be able to come home all even,” Stevens said.
It was, of course, during the Stanley Cup Finals that Stevens became known as one of the biggest hitters the game has ever known. In game two at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Stevens delivered a crushing hit on Red Wings’ forward Slava Kozlov. Dino Ciccarelli led the outrage on the Detroit bench, but television cameras caught the moment when Stevens looked at Ciccarelli and warned: “You’re next!”
A 2-1 loss in that first game was the closest the Red Wings would get as the Devils swept the series to capture their first championship. Stevens had set the tone. “With Scott, stories aren’t pumped up,” Ken Daneyko said. “After he hit Kozlov, some Red Wings were chirping, and he went down the line and said, ‘You’re next,’ and he meant it.”
Claude Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP that year, and deservedly so, but it could just as easily have gone to No. 4. “I don’t know about other players, but the great ones like Scotty would always trade individual trophies for those championships,” Holik said.
“Scotty was our leader. He was selfless and that’s what made him what he was. I’ve told people that he was everything they saw.” Larry Robinson, an assistant coach with that ’95 squad and the head coach in 2000, agreed. “Scotty made the difference in that Detroit series when he leveled Kozlov,” Robinson said. “Our players kind of looked to Scotty to give them that inspirational lift. That was a huge reason why we won three Stanley Cups.”
Of course, his hit on Philadelphia Flyers captain Eric Lindros in game seven of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals stands as one of the pivotal moments in Stanley Cup history. The game, played in Philly, would determine which team advanced to the finals against Dallas. Stevens caught Lindros as he crossed the blue line, knocking the big center unconscious and silencing the crowd.
“You look at Scotty and his hits all came at key moments,” Robinson pointed out. “He always hit, but it was the timing of those hits. The one I remember most is the Lindros hit in Philadelphia. The whole bench stood up and Bobby Holik said: ‘We’re going to win this game now.’ It still gives me goose bumps.”
He would score the game-winning goal in game one of the finals against the Stars and ultimately be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. The following spring, Stevens would deliver big hits on Carolina’s Shane Willis and Ron Francis in the playoffs.
“I love the physical part of the game,” Stevens said. “I was always a physical player. I love football. I created room for myself and, hopefully, for my teammates. I’d like to be remembered as a guy who came to play every night and worked hard.”
He will be remembered for more than just his big hits. “Scotty was an example of what this organization stood for,” center John Madden said. “He was loyal and trustworthy. Scotty could be counted on at all times. He always put the Devils’ logo and the team first. That’s very rare.”
His leadership was never more evident than during the 2003 playoffs. In game three of the conference semifinals against the Lightning, Stevens was hit in the left ear by a shot from Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina. He left the ice bleeding badly and it was questionable as to whether he would play in game four two nights later. In fact, there were doubts whether he could play again at all that spring.
“I remember him leaving that game,” Madden recalled. “The next time I saw him was at the morning breakfast (before game four). There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he would play. He talked about the upcoming game, not about his head. He was thinking about the game. “There wouldn’t be too many guys who’d play with that injury. You’ve got to remember where he got hit, right on the ear.”
Sergei Brylin was among those Devils inspired by Stevens. “The next game he played and scored a big goal,” Brylin said. “He was a great leader, one of the best in the history of hockey. Scott was a good guy in the room. He knew so much about hockey. What did he mean to us? You could see how tough it was for us to play when he got hurt (and was sidelined during the 2003-04 season).”
Despite the severity of that injury, Stevens did not miss a single game throughout the 2003 playoffs. When the Devils defeated the Mighty Ducks in the finals, it was his third Stanley Cup and the first for Coach Pat Burns.
Burns has coached some of the game’s greatest defensemen, including Robinson and Chris Chelios in Montreal, and Ray Bourque in Boston, but he ranks Stevens as the best of them all. “For presence on the ice, I’d have to say he’d be the No. 1 defenseman I’ve ever had,” Burns said. “Among the greatest defensemen ever, Bobby Orr was good. Ray Bourque would definitely be up near the top with Larry Robinson and Chris Chelios. Stevens is definitely in there. He’s a guy you love to hate. His tenor on the ice and the presence that he brings make him special.”
There was, of course, a fear factor when assessing his presence on the ice. Opposing forwards feared entering his zone and that worked to the team’s advantage. If an opposing player had thoughts about taking advantage of anyone wearing a Devils sweater, Stevens was a deterrent.
Stevens had that quality from the time he broke into the NHL with the Washington Capitals. “I didn’t draft him. Jack Button drafted him,” said David Poile, who was GM of the Capitals when Stevens arrived. “We decided, ‘He’s 18, so let’s do the right thing for the kid. Send him back to juniors if he’s not ready.’ After the scrimmage on the first day there wasn’t a person in the organization who didn’t think he wasn’t going to play for us. “His physical presence is something I haven’t seen before or since from another player, and he was just 18.
Scott’s mantra from day one was he would never physically be intimidated. You knew when you were playing against Scott Stevens you could never take advantage of him or his team. He would be there, and not just once. Every time.” He was the Devils unquestioned leader on and off the ice throughout his years with the team. Never a doubt. “To me, it wasn’t the big times. It was the little times when you might’ve thought not much was on the line,” Niedermayer explained. “He played the same way in game 35 as he did in the playoffs.”
Stevens admits that was not always easy, but it was necessary. “I believe I came to play every night,” Stevens said. “It’s something I take pride in. Sometimes it’s hard for an athlete to be consistent.” Consistency was always a recurring theme for Stevens.
Not surprisingly, it was the team’s ability to remain among the league’s elite for so long that will stay with him long after his number is raised to the rafters. “I’m proudest of the Stanley Cups and how good we were,” Stevens reflected. “We were a great team without a lot of big-name individuals. We had good chemistry and we were a hard-working team. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to stay that way for such a long time. It shows that chemistry, character, and heart are very important to hockey teams. We’ve had a lot of that in the last 12-13 years.”
It would not have happened without Stevens. “He was a huge difference,” Robinson acknowledged. “He was the key as much as anybody.” No surprise there. “It starts with his approach to the game and practices,” Holik said. “You look up to him for his approach and the way he carried himself.
“There have been more talented players, but Scotty was the ultimate defenseman.” Lou Lamoriello knew that back in the summer of 1991 in that small hotel room in Toronto.