While most of our stories focus on athletes in their 20s and 30s, every once in a while we like to step inside the lives of badass athletes from generations past.
We’re calling this piece You Never Have Anything Made: A Conversation with Scott Stevens.
We sat down with Stevens, the NHL Hall-of-Fame Defenseman, a couple weeks back to learn more about his life. This is the story of a great man.
THE FIRST EXTRAORDINARY thing you notice upon meeting Scott Stevens are his hands. Not just that his hands are broad and very big — though they are, they’re veritable bear paws — they are puffy and swollen, like mittens. They look and feel like they’ve been stuffed with cotton before being packed full with sand.
It’s probably what it’s like to shake hands with a boxer who neglected to ice after a big fight. Or what I imagine it would be like to try and grip hands with a muscular, farm-handed Mickey Mouse.
The point is, that right now as I stand in the lobby of our building, shaking hands with Scott Stevens, telling him excitedly that It’s awesome to meet you, Scott. Thank you for meeting with us, I realize — more viscerally than expected — that we are not meeting with a normal human being.
Stevens, whether it’s from 20 years of battling in the NHL or just sheer genetics, is a unique specimen. He’s unlike us or anyone I’ve ever shaken hands with, for that matter.
I don’t think this is an exaggeration.
To the non-hockey fans occupying this lobby, Stevens is a handsome, clean-shaven guy dressed neatly in a zip neck jumper and designer jeans. While broader-shouldered and more barrel-chested than most men who walk into 222 Broadway, he looks like he could work in this building or like he might be interviewing for a job with us.
To that point, there’s no gratuitous staring from fellow elevator riders on our crowded ride up 20 floors. No double takes or smirks in our direction from giddy guys in startup attire as we walk through the WeWork common space.
I’m kind of amazed. Seemingly no one recognizes Stevens for who he is: Potentially the greatest defenseman to ever play the game of hockey.
WE ARRIVE AT our conference room. We’re talking about outdoor hockey rinks with Stevens. He grew up with one in his backyard.
“I can’t stand the heat. I love the cold. It makes you feel like you can go all day long,” Stevens says, like he’s fresh off the ice. His accent sounds more Midwestern than Canadian. “I’m sure you guys felt the same way about it being cool out when you played lacrosse.”
Making Stevens’ acquaintance, you get the warm first impression of a very nice guy. His manner is upbeat and generous and cooperative.
He’s also just fired up to be here, I think. He is, fundamentally, one of the boys. So much that it takes a little while to settle into our interview.
I glance down at my carefully typed up questions, looking for an easy opener.
Leading up to this interview, I had reached out to friends — Devils fans, mostly — looking for solid questions to ask the hockey legend. The questions I got in return revolved around a few principal topics: Stevens’ biggest hits, his biggest hits during the playoffs, and the art of delivering the perfect hockey hit, as told by Scott Stevens.
To be fair, one source did want to know if Stevens would be returning to a coaching position with the Devils and, if so, if Stevens believes that would result in the Devils letting the bodies hit the floor more often on defense.
And I get it. The fascination with the hits. Have you ever watched Stevens’ biggest hits? His hits are magnificent and mammoth. Fast and ferocious. Technical and instinctual. It’s controversial, I know, but the hits are all these things and more. I spent the entirety of yesterday afternoon watching these hits, over and over again, on YouTube.
But that’s not the focus of this interview.
This is advice for a young man from Scott Stevens.
THERE ARE A few seconds of silence after some back and forth chatter about Tampa Bay Lightning forward, Alex Killorn.
“So, when’d you know you wanted to be a professional hockey player?”
“I think I knew at four-years-old, if you can know. That’s all I wanted to do.”
“Well, hockey’s huge in Canada, we know that. My dad was a big fan. When he was young, he didn’t have the funds to play hockey, so he played football. But later in life he really liked hockey, so he introduced that to us early on. We fell in love with it. I had two brothers and we were all a year apart, and that was nice because we could all have our own little games and be very competitive with each other. And then we always had an outdoor rink, which was awesome. We’d skate on the outdoor rink every night. We were out there whenever we had the time. Basically we only came in when my mom rang the dinner bell.”
Stevens grew up in a middle class household in Kitchener, Canada, a small city 60 miles outside of Toronto. His parents, Larry and Mary, ran a paper products company located about an hour away from their home. A true family run business that required all hands on deck, Stevens and his two brothers, Geoff and Mike (Scott was the middle child) often put in the hours before and after school. When they became teenagers, they’d drive a large truck to and from the factory, loading, transporting, and unloading product materials.
Over the summers, the company became a full-time job for Stevens and his brothers. He’d work from sunrise to sunset.
“I made a lot of sacrifices,” he says, “and so did my parents. It was hard for them. They were busy working and running a business for all three of us to have the equipment and the skates. I owe them a lot. Along with the equipment, they helped with the work ethic and commitment, too.”
Growing up in this environment, Stevens developed indefatigable habits of work to overcome his having fewer hours to train. He and his brothers would take turns, one driving the truck to or from the factory, the other two riding passenger side, getting that critical hour of sleep.
When he had the choice, he elected to drive in the morning and nap on the ride back. That hour of sleep on the way home gave him the juice to skate on the ice in the backyard and hone his skills late into the night.
He says he also made nutrition a priority at an unusually young age. During the late seventies, what many today might consider to be particularly unhealthy era of eating habits, Stevens ate like an elite modern-day athlete. While most of his friends were snacking on pizza, Wonderbread, bulk chocolates, and wolfing burgers and fries washed down with shakes and root beer, Stevens committed to a strict diet of plain yogurt, protein, fruits, and veggies. A diet that would meet the health standards of the most hardline nutritionists today.
His no nonsense diet’s a bit baffling, even to Stevens himself, because the sort of nutrition he lived by wasn’t advocated for anywhere. Not even in the school’s health education programs.
“I was only 15-years-old, but I was very conscious of what I ate. I stayed away from sugar and was very, very conscious and strict at this age, which is a bit odd. I thought about eating healthy, working out, and getting enough rest, and I began looking closely at these foods. I thought maybe this could be an edge. It was part of looking for every edge to make it and using everything in your ability.”
I ask how he instinctively knew to.
“I just knew that you have to do those things. It’s like anything in life, not just sports, you have to give yourself every opportunity to succeed. You have to make sacrifices and have commitment and discipline.”
He’ll say these three words — sacrifice, commitment, and discipline — a lot throughout the interview. Uttered by the wrong type of person — which is to say when uttered by the ninety percent of the human population who have not attained the no bullshit success and respect of Stevens — these words ring false. We automatically tune them out, usually for good reason.
Leaving Steven’s mouth, these words actually breathe--they matter to us. They aren’t sport’s cliches; they constitute his life code. They embody what we aspire to at WOLACO.
And it’s hard not to take dead seriously exactly what he’s saying when you know and have seen what he’s achieved during his epic career. He has the hardware, the rings, the YouTube highlights to prove it.
He looks like he’s still thinking on this.
“For me, I’ve gone back to reunions and I speak with other players. You hear some players saying ‘If I would have done this a little better’ or ‘been a little more responsible, made more sacrifices’ or ‘If I skated a little more,’ I probably would have had a chance.”
“And even if you do all those things, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make it, but you’ll have no regrets. And I think that’s the most important thing anywhere in life is have no regrets. When those guys said that to me, I remember thinking Wow. I felt bad for them, because they were talented players but they weren’t willing to do the extra things to get to the next level. The difference between making it can be very slim. A little more character, a little more heart, more sacrifice, that could be it for whether you go on and play the sport you love. And that’s the same with anywhere in life.”
STEVENS REMINDS US that not everyone has the right stuff. Growing up as a hockey player in Canada, where the talent is rich and fierce and vast, you confront your own limitations somewhat starkly. Between youth hockey, Juniors, and the OHL, most players don’t make it.
Almost no one makes it as far as Stevens did. This includes his two brothers, Mike and Geoff. Mike played twenty-three games in the NHL. Geoff became an NHL scout, where he worked for the New Jersey Devils.
“When did you know you had a real shot to play hockey professionally?”
“There was a guy by the name of Myron Stankiewicz. He was my coach when I played minor hockey in Kitchener. He was such a good mentor and my parents were really busy so he would pick me up and take me to games a lot. He was a guy who played a bit of pro, so it was kinda nice.”
He smiles now, remembering.
“He’s the first one that actually said this to me. I remember once in the car with him, he said: ‘If you really want to, you could play in the NHL.’ When he said that I was so fired up and I was probably 13. Here’s a guy who played before and he feels that if I wanted it bad enough, I’d have a chance. It really felt good, because that’s all I wanted to do, was to play in the NHL. And he’s the first one that ever said it out loud. That felt good and gave me that extra little zip, too.”
Belief lifts talent at that age.
I wonder if there’s anything else I can draw from him, other words of inspiration, or advice he wishes he had back then.
“If you could go back and give advice to your 18-year-old self, what would you say?”
He sits back and thinks seriously on this. An awkward silence ensues.
The silence settles.
He continues to think. The silence is now uncomfortable.
“It sounds like you were pretty well-prepared,” I offer.
“Yeah, I was.”
He was. He was practically a boy scout, probably as prepared as you can get for the NHL in terms of emotional and mental maturity.
He didn’t drink. He didn’t party. He had a ridiculously healthy diet that didn’t really make sense for his time and place. He observed a strenuous training regimen and sleeping schedule. As a model human being, he was everything you wanted in a hockey player.
“I guess I was pretty intimidated,” he says finally. “I would say still enjoy the process. Enjoy what you do. It has to be fun, so enjoy it. I think that’s important. But, again, it’s a fine line, you know. I think when you work hard, the fun comes, but the work has to come first. Even with practice, I felt a good, hard, physical practice, that was a lot of fun.”
STEVENS WAS PICKED fifth overall in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals. He didn’t skate a game in the minor leagues. He scored on his first shot in his first game in the NHL.
“How’d you prepare for that jump, making the transition into the NHL?”
“You know, with every level the challenges are basically speed and size. Everything is quicker, so you have to pick your pace up. The guys are a lot bigger, so you have to make sure you’re physically ready for that step, too. But you have to be ready to meet the challenge mentally. When you’re in the limelight, everybody wants to be your buddy. They want you to go here, go there. So you need to limit distractions and stay focused. Get your rest. Take care of yourself. And try always to be the best at your position. Not that you’re going to be that, but if you always strive to be the best at what you do, I think it’s a good model.”
He was an accomplished and disciplined player more than gifted. He was physically strong and tough, with soft hands, a hockey player’s feel and vision, an awesome shot, and great feet, but so did (and do) many defenseman who weren’t (and won’t be) inducted into the Hall of Fame.
His passion and instinct for the game distinguished him as a player. Stevens had a tireless desire to sharpen and elevate his game. A unique and singular mentality that allowed him to advance his game when and where others were content. A lot of coaches and sportscasters speak to this intensity of resolve when they use the old cliche: The desire to get better each day.
In Steven’s words, it’s this:
“I never felt that I had anything made, you know what I’m saying?,” his smile disappearing. His tone urgent now, more intense, like he’s about to confide a secret to us.
“I always had to prove myself. Whether you’re going to training camp, you always have the belief that nothing is set. You have to earn it, every time. Take nothing for granted. Come to work every day like your spot is on the line. That’s my motto. That’s what I’ve learned.”
“Also, I think it’s about identifying your weaknesses and getting better at them. So many guys know what they’re good at, and they can’t become a complete player. It’s easy to work on the stuff you like to do and feels good, but to challenge yourself to do things that you’re weak at, that’s so important. Guys suffer because they don’t wanna be exposed. You see that all the time.”
Fewer than half of all NHL players hit the 100 game mark (a full regular season is 82 games). Long careers, meaning careers spanning for more than a few years, are extremely rare. Only 4 percent of players dress for over 1,000 games, the equivalent of twelve seasons, not including the playoffs.
Stevens played for 22 seasons, winning 3 Stanley Cups, and suiting up for more games than any defenseman before him. Most impressive, maybe, is that he made the All-Star team in his final seasons as the longest reigning New Jersey Devils captain.
I ask how he made an impact for so many years.
“Well, you have to stay fit, you have to stay healthy, obviously. And then there’s adjusting to the game changing as you get older. Finding a way to still make a difference as you get older. And then the love of the game, obviously. You have to be passionate about the game to play it for that long. First and foremost.”
“How’d you stay relevant?”
“It was hard work. I made more of a transition to a defensive shutdown guy. I had really decent offensive numbers, but for our first cup I was put in a different role. I guarded the other team’s top players. I accepted that role just as other players accepted new roles on the team.”
“You were an incredible defenseman. More than that, you were a great leader. What qualities do you think are most important of a captain, a leader?”
“Lead by example,” he says without blinking. “Number one, that’s it. Lead by example. If I’m not willing to do something for the team, for the better of the team, but I expect my teammates to do it, it’s not going to work. You have to be accountable. You have to show that you’re willing to make the sacrifices and do the little things also, and then the guys behind you have to follow. They have no choice. If you’re taking care of yourself, doing the things right, making the sacrifices, and then other people see it, it’s contagious. That’s how you lead men and how you become a champion.”
I ask him about playoff mentality and how he would define mental toughness.
“Being able to put everything aside and focus on your job and being the best at your position. I think that’s what it’s about, mental toughness. Because I think a lot of times when you get to the playoffs and you’re trying to win a cup, it’s more of a mental game at that point because it’s such a long process. It’s a two month war. And I think it’s how you handle that. If you’re mentally strong, that’s more important than the physical part.”
He continues, “It’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s how you respond to a loss. When you’re in a playoff series, you’re playing that same team, you could be playing them seven times. And if they’re doing something that works against you, you’ve got to make changes as a team or as a coaching staff. It’s really a chess match. You’re constantly making adjustments and tweaking things. If you’re just going to have the mindset where you say, Well we’re just going to play the same way we’ve played all year, because we got here by playing that way, that won’t work. Some teams are better at making adjustments on the fly than others. Some teams resist it. Some players resist it. And usually that is their demise.”
I GLANCE DOWN at my sheet of questions. We’ve been speaking with Stevens for the last hour.
There are three questions I haven’t asked him. Each question focuses on his hits. I consider how to phrase the first one. It’s tough.
It’s the 1,000 pound gorilla in this small room. The fact that the well-dressed, articulate, and immensely kind man sitting across from me, smiling good-naturedly at this very moment, has delivered some of the most punishing and awe-inspiring hits the sport of hockey has ever seen.
If you Google Scott Stevens name, that’s the first video that comes up: a highlight reel of his biggest hits. It’s impossible to watch these hits only once — they’re that good, though good isn’t exactly the right word.
Should I ask about the hits? I take a sip of my lukewarm coffee.
Then a rap against the window of our conference room. A woman in a suit makes meaningful eye contact with us through Warby Parker glasses.
Looking vaguely annoyed, she points at her iPhone and mouths “We have this room now.” I want to tell her that we’re interviewing Scott Stevens and could you please give us a minute. But I’m not sure that would mean anything to her.
A BRIEF INTERLUDE
As I write this article a few weeks after the fact, I’m researching Scott Stevens, trying to dig up the things we missed in our interview with him. But again, what I go back to are the hits on YouTube. I watch the reel. It has 1.8 million views.
Now watching the highlights of Stevens at work, he pivots from the left side of the ice below the defensive blue line and directs the momentum of his body up the ice. As the puck carrier, a New York Islander, crosses the middle of the blue line with his head down, the player never sees it coming. Stevens comes out of nowhere, he’s literally hidden behind one of his own teammates, using him as a pick, up until the moment he makes contact with the forward, lowering his shoulder (cleanly) into the player’s chest, and with such force and technique and timing, that this hit could only be delivered by Scott Stevens.
These hits aren’t just big and ferocious, I realize. They are smart, disciplined, calculated, perfectly executed. They are distinctly Scott Stevens, the hits, a part and product of who he is as a complete player and person. Not the other way around.
The hits never needed explaining.
Whatever made Stevens such an incredible hitter is the same stuff that made him want to become a professional hockey player in the first place when he was 4-years-old. It’s the same stuff that drove him to look for every possible edge to make it as a professional. Why he trained late at night on the outdoor rink as a kid after working hard and full days at the family company. Why he adopted a monk-like lifestyle as a teenager in the unrelenting pursuit of being the best at his position.
Because he never felt like he had it made. Even after winning 3 Stanley cups, he didn’t feel like he had anything made. In other words, no one gets a free ride. Not him or anyone who came flying over the blue line into his defensive zone.
The hits are the loudest expression of his passion, instinct, intensity, and love for the game. The game that’s as much a part of him as his enormous mitten hands.
I don’t ask about the hits.
We walk up the stairs with Stevens and take a picture before he heads out. I shake the right mitten again.
I ask him what he most wants to be remembered for.
“Obviously winning the Stanley Cups with my teammates, the ones I made the sacrifices with. The work we put in together that went into achieving the Stanley Cup as a team. That’s the best.”
One more question.
“A lot of people wanna know, do you expect more coaching in your future?”
“I still have that desire, yeah. Where? I don’t know. But being an assistant coach, there’s something special about it. The job I have is good, but it doesn’t give you that adrenaline rush of being right there, hands on, coaching. I love teaching players and trying to help them to get better. I love that part of the game, so I’ll see when the season’s over. I know there are some jobs open if I want to apply. We’ll see what happens.”