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By Patryk Fournier
May 5, 2003
With the early playoff exit of the Detroit Red Wings I'm left wondering if this is the end of a potential dynasty or simply a hiccup that they'll rebound from next year. I had these same thoughts 10 years ago when the N.Y Islanders upset two-time defending Stanley Cup champions the Pittsburgh Penguins. May 14, 1993 is a significant date for two reasons. 1. It ended the Pittsburgh Penguins run as an early 90's dynasty and 2. It ended Kevin Stevens' dominance as a Power Forward.
A 3-ounce polycarbonate visor; that's what it took to end the dominance of one of the greatest power forwards the NHL has ever seen. The visor was attached to Rich Pilon's helmet, a stay at home defenseman for the Islanders. Early in the first period of Game 7 of the Pens-Islanders 2nd round series, Stevens skated in and attempted to hit Pilon but instead was met by Pilon's visor which promptly knocked Stevens unconscious. A collision that was reminiscent of a chair shot from Stone Cold Steve Austin. This was not the worst of the hit as Stevens' unconsciousness left him prone to a much worse and graver injury than he could have ever imagined. Imagine getting dropped face first onto the ice from a 6-foot height, without the use of your hands or arms to cushion the blow; a feeling that can only be trumped by having to listen to a Jacques Martin press conference. Stevens experienced that feeling and the consequences on his career there after.
Cam Neely gave birth to the power forward term in hockey. Neely played a physical game that included hitting opponents in the corners, fighting and setting up in front of the oppositions net to screen the goalie, deflect shots and bang home rebounds. Neely may have been the first recognized power forward but Kevin Stevens helped define and dominate the category for a period of 5 seasons (89-90 to 93-94) where he amassed 219 goals, 259 assists for 478 points in 391 games. Add his 890 penalty minutes to those totals and you have the epitome of a power forward. His five-year reign was highlighted by the 1991-1992 season where he scored 54 goals, added 69 assists for 123 points plus an unreal total of 254 penalty minutes. To put that in perspective this year's NHL penalty minutes leader Jody Shelley had 249 PM and 5 points. Stevens was at the pinnacle of his career, which he should have been able to sustain for a few more years. The injury changed all of that.
Stevens needed extensive reconstructive surgery on his face. In a 4 ½ operation doctors cut an incision below his hairline from ear-to-ear, which was later closed with over 100 stitches, peeled back his skin and reassembled the bones in Stevens face with the use of metal plates. It was definitely one of the most memorable and horrifying NHL injuries to date. Remarkably Stevens returned triumphantly to the Penguins the following season and posted tremendous figures with 41 goals, 47 assists in an injury free season of 83 games. While the offensive production was impressive Stevens wasn't the same physical force, perhaps hampered by the mental aspect of his injury. Unfortunately this was the last season that Stevens would experience such success. He was traded shortly after to Boston where he failed to produce, which led to his subsequent trade to Los Angeles where disappointment followed him again. Stevens lasted parts of two seasons with Los Angeles before the Rangers traded for him and gave him a chance but once again lofty expectations were never attained and Stevens' career had dwindled to the point where he was now considered a role player.
January 23rd, 2000 signaled the low point of Stevens' life when he got caught smoking crack cocaine with a prostitute in a seedy St. Louis community. Stevens was arrested and spent one night in jail. "Just one night, but it seemed like about 75 days", Stevens told a reporter. Stevens' early addiction problems started with alcohol, something that was addressed along with his drug addiction in a two-month rehab session. His alcohol problems continued to be addressed with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. By all accounts Stevens is a tremendous person, who has no trouble making friends wherever he goes. I met him briefly a few years ago prior to a practice and he seemed very friendly, patient and gracious while signing autographs. His smile never left his face while surrounded by his fans. Stevens expressed great regret about his drug use and arrest: "It's something I wished never happened," Stevens said. "I made a big mistake. I made a bad decision. I don't feel good about what happened." Stevens' friends haven't let these personal issues define the person they affectionately call "Artie". Mario Lemieux spoke to Stevens that night in jail and Wayne Gretzky had nothing but kind words for Stevens. "I think the reason people were so drawn to Kevin is he would give the shirt off his back to anybody who needed anything. He was comfortable hanging with the captain or the young guys on a team. He was one of the guys nobody disliked." It is perhaps because of these ringing endorsements to his character that Stevens was given a chance to continue his career.
He received an offer from the Flyers in the hopes that he could rekindle the magic he once displayed. He only played 23 games for the Flyers before Kevin's career cycle would complete and bring him back to the very place he started, Pittsburgh. Stevens' return to Pittsburgh was fueled by the return of Mario Lemieux. Lemieux returned to the game after a 3 ½ year retirement. Also at that time Pittsburgh was looking for a player with some grit and some savvy in front, hence the opportunity for Stevens to return. Stevens returned to the Penguins and his familiar place, left wing, and the city of Pittsburgh alongside his good friend Mario. Stevens rekindled memories of a decade ago by scoring and playing the style of play he was once famous for. Stevens no longer looked like a North American plug in a sea of European outlets. He had found his rightful place and was able to fit in and play a meaningful role once again and it looked good on him. Stevens, Lemieux and Jagr helped propel the Pens to an Eastern Conference Final appearance that year. Though the eventual Cup Champion Devils beat them, the surprising journey evoked memories of the Penguins dominance some years ago. I only question what would have been for the Penguins and Stevens had he not suffered that injury ten years ago?