Other defensemen had more points and some players might even have had a better +/-; still, though he never won a regular season MVP or even a Norris Trophy, Scott Stevens was, in aggregate, the NHL’s best player in the between lockouts era of 1994-2004.
Stevens is justifiably most remembered for the “hits”: Leaving the Wings’ Kozlov crawling about like a drunk sorority girl in ’95; ending Unlucky Lindy in ’00; obliterating Willis and Francis in ’01; KOing Paul Kariya in ’03. For me, however, Stevens’ greatest moment was the last game of the regular season against the Florida Panthers in 2000.
The wonderful thing about ice hockey is that grit and determination can equalize superior talent. Where effort counts most leadership will serve the truest standard.
The ‘99-’00 Devils had been phenomenal through most of the season, but their efforts began to disintegrate over the last fifth of the season. A 9-0 thwomping of the Thrashers would be followed by a 3-1 loss to the Islanders. After late season trades and even firing their coach the team was still not right and seemed destined to repeat the playoff flops of the previous three years.
The Devils faced the Florida Panthers in the last game of the regular season that would decide the 4th and 5th seed and first round home ice advantage in the Eastern Conference. A few weeks earlier Devils defenseman Scott Niedermeyer had uncharacteristically slugged Panther goon Peter Worrel on the head with his stick, drawing a ten game suspension and creating an extra layer of antagonism to the match up.
Down 1-0 the Devils seemed listless; in the middle of the second period Worrel took several runs at the Devils’ skill players, which added to the defeated presence of squad.
Then Stevens challenged Worrel, first by taking several chippy shots and finally by fighting him. Worrel was primarily a pugilist, he was bigger and probably stronger than Stevens, but Stevens fought him to a draw anyway. People who don’t understand hockey often decry the fighting, but it is merely a proxy for the emotion that underlies the unrivaled physicality of a sport with no out of bounds. Every fight is a catharsis and therefore a turning point.
I was listening to the radio broadcast of the game through my computer at college. I felt an unmatched symbiosis with that team and I could sense then, as I tried to type my history paper, that their fortunes had finally turned.
The Devils tied and then won the game and, a month and a half later the Cup, and the only stat that marks the crucial moment was five for fighting for best player in the game for a decade.