Talking Red

This Day In Devils History: Stevens, Awarded To New Jersey, Sees Life Change

Posted in on by Dan Pennucci

This Day In Devils History: September 3, 1991

Judge Edward J. Houston is a name that might not mean much to New Jersey Devil fans at first glance.

However, an argument can be made that Mr. Houston, an NHL arbitrator, influenced the course of Devils’ history more than any one player to ever don a New Jersey sweater.

Sure, General Manager Lou Lamoriello crafted the team through trades and drafts to help the squad lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Sure, The Maple Leafs’ organization helped massively when they sent their 1991 first-round pick to the Devils in exchange for Tom Kurvers; a pick the Devils used on British Columbia native Scott Niedermayer, who proceeded to have a serviceable NHL career with four Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals.

Sure, Martin Brodeur backstopped the team to three Cup wins, Jason Arnott scored the winning goal in 2000, the Crash Line helped frustrate Detroit in 1995 and let’s not forget Jeff Friesen’s series-clinching goal against Ottawa in Game 7 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals.

Mr. Houston was responsible for bringing Scott Stevens to New Jersey on this day 21 years earlier.

In 1991, Stevens was awarded to New Jersey as compensation for St. Louis’s signing of Brendan Shanahan following a lengthy arbitration battle. Shanahan, a restricted free agent, was signed to a 4-year contract by St. Louis, meaning the Devils were owed compensation. However, the Blues were lacking in compensatory draft picks after they poached Stevens from Washington and current Nashville GM David Poile during the summer of 1990, as Poile opted not to match the Blues’ five-year offer to Stevens. (A situation that could have influenced Poile’s decision to re-sign Shea Weber this offseason after the Flyers signed him to a 15-year offer sheet). Following their signing of Shanahan, the Blues were required to put together a package of players and future draft picks to reward the Devils as compensation.

The Devils were offered a package of players including a young Curtis Joseph, two draft picks and young center Rod Brind’Amour by the Blues, but the Devils insisted on their demands for Stevens to leave the Gateway City after the squad lost 1987’s No, 2 overall draft pick, a fan favorite in Shanahan.  Ultimately, Mr. Houston sided with the Devils.

Following New Jersey’s prolonged success under Stevens’ reign as captain, the talismanic leader was honored by the club and thanked them profusely when his number was retired in early December 2007 prior to a contest against Washington. Back in 1991, Stevens sung a rather different tune after learning he was to be the compensation St. Louis sent to the Devils, who had also expressed interest in Adam Oates and Brett Hull. To say that Stevens was disappointed in the decision is putting it lightly, as he and his wife, Donna, felt there was some semblance of security with the five-year deal he inked with St. Louis one summer earlier.

While Scott Stevens was not sure if he’d report to the Devils following 1991’s Canada Cup, as he was considering legal action to keep himself in St. Louis, his wife, Donna, wasn’t too happy about the arbitrator’s ruling either, telling The New York Times:

“When we decided to leave Washington, Scott had played there for eight years. We had built our dream home. We had a lot of close friends outside of hockey and a lot of roots there. When we made a conscious decision to leave there our full intent was to stay [in St. Louis] for the rest of Scott’s career. You don’t make that big of a jump without putting a lot of thought into it, especially when we had a baby that was 10 months old and another one on the way.”

It wasn’t just a hockey decision for Stevens, but, at the same time, it was a hockey decision. The Devils had not grown into the team that dominated the late 1990’s, while St. Louis was budding into a legitimate contender thanks to Hull, Stevens, Oates and Curtis Joseph. The Devils were a playoff team then, but the impact of their last two first-round picks, Martin Brodeur in 1990 and Scott Niedermayer in 1991, had not yet been realized. Stevens echoed his wife’s sentiments about the disappointment he felt in essentially being ordered to leave St. Louis, noting “I was looking forward to having our own place and being so close to the rink and settled. I was really looking forward to the season and having a better season at that because I felt secure and stable.”

The stability the couple sought eventually was found in New Jersey, despite an understandable reluctance to leave what was becoming a home, especially after enduring a similar episode the season before. Already a two-time All-Star in 1991, Stevens’ game had more of an offensive flair to it in those days, something that continued for a few seasons with the Devils, topping out at 78 points in the team’s breakout season of 1993-94. While the experience in New Jersey did not begin ideally, Stevens’ play and leadership helped transform the Devils while the fans eventually got over Shanahan leaving considering what Stevens brought to the squad.

The memories of Scott Stevens lifting three Stanley Cups are something that is engrained in the mind of every Devils fan. The laying out of Eric Lindros in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals and the image of Detroit’s Slava Kozlov lying seemingly dead on the ice in 1995 following a run-in with Stevens and, of course, the penalty box official in Toronto shuddering in horror as Stevens nearly ripped the door from its hinges following Tie Domi’s elbowing of Scott Niedermayer in 2001.

Edward J. Houston: The man who changed the course of the New Jersey Devils.

While Stevens stayed in New Jersey for the remainder of his career, Brendan Shanahan was on the move quite a bit after leaving the Swamp. The man currently doling out suspensions like candy and narrating Power Point videos detailing illegal hits was at the center of some of the biggest trades of the 1990’s. After several successful seasons with the Blues, Shanahan was shipped to Hartford for Chris Pronger in 1995 before being dealt to Detroit in 1996 in a deal for Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey. Shanahan would prove to be instrumental in three Stanley Cup wins with the Red Wings before ending his career with New Jersey following several years across the Hudson with the Rangers.

Stevens was hired as one of New Jersey’s assistant coaches this past offseason after Larry Robinson signed on with San Jose. Since his retirement following the 2003-04 season, Stevens worked within the Devils organization as a consultant.

Twitter: @dpennucci