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Congratulations to an Overlooked Great

One of the few things my mom and I have in common is a crush on Scott Stevens. She likes his rugged yet handsome face, ripped muscles and gentlemanly glasses. I like his attitude, his leadership, his undeniable excellence, and, fuck it, his rugged yet handsome face.

I saw Stevens win his last Stanley Cup, in 2003, in person. I still have the sports section from the morning after -- a special pull-out in The Star Ledger with a giant, vibrantly-colored picture of a topless Stevens in the celebratory post-game locker room, champagne and sweat dripping from his head, holding the Cup, his mouth wide open in a look of primal exhiliration. Everytime I look at that picture, I feel a sort of emotional stirring, the intensity of which I rarely feel.

The reason for that, I've concluded, lies in the picture's context -- not that it was taken in the wake of hockey's ultimate victory, but the sacrifice Stevens made that year to get to that point. Earlier in those playoffs, in Game 3 of a second-round match with the Lightning, Stevens took a Pavel Kubina slapshot to the head. Initially, he didn't get up. Everyone feared the worst. Here's a guy who was known for his toughness, a guy who made people afraid of even sniffing the Devils' blue line for fear that they'd be the next in line to receive one of Stevens' patented ultra-clean, sometimes career-ending body checks. The rock of the team, the one constant everybody relied on for security. And he couldn't get up.

Inexplicably, Stevens returned for the next game. And the one after that. And the one after that. And for every game thereafter until, with my father and I in attendance, they set off a Stanley Cup celebration in the Meadowlands. But effects from post-concussion syndrome bothered him all summer long. It's undeniable where that concussion came from. And it's undeniable that playing through the concussion compounded its severity. Little did we know, watching the team celebrate after their 3-0 victory over Anaheim in Game 7 of the Finals, that that would be the last time we watched Our Captain on the ice. The lingering effects of the slap shot forced him into retirement. He bartered the rest of his career, another 2-3 years, for one last Stanley Cup. And when you look into the face in the picture, bordering on rapturous, you realize that it was a decision he knowingly made. And there were no regrets -- it was all worth it. That's what stirs me about the picture.

He was just that type of player. You could forget about typical proclamations -- "best hitter in history," "one of the great stay-at-home defensemen ever" -- even though they're true. Scott Stevens is now an NHL Hall of Fame player. His talent, obviously, played a large part in that honor. But it was Stevens' selflessness, his loyalty to the team concept, his dedication of the game and his desire to honor its history with every on-ice stride he took, that elevated him from an excellent player to a legendary one. I will be making my first trip to Toronto to watch him get inducted. It's the least I could do -- he gave me three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe, a highlight reel of great hits, and 13 years of great memories. He gave me everything he had to give.

And with every passing Devils game, I miss him more.