John Stevens overcomes odds to make it as Flyers coach
John Stevens overcomes odds to make it as Flyers coach
In a flash, John Stevens' career as a fringe minor leaguer was over. Little did he know as he was being prepared for surgery, a new calling for him was in the works.
Former Flyers general manager Bob Clarke phoned Stevens' wife and told her not to worry about his future employment. Clarke wanted her husband to stay in the organization as a minor league assistant coach. Stevens' stint in Philadelphia's system wasn't over yet.
"That meant a lot, just knowing that he wanted me to stay involved," Stevens said. "It showed me a lot about the organization."
Fast-forward seven years later and Stevens, still troubled by blurred vision that will likely never go away, was returning home from his son's hockey game when another call came from a Flyers general manager about another coaching opportunity.
When Stevens met at a diner with interim GM Paul Holmgren last weekend, he was only weeks into his first season as an NHL assistant with the Flyers. When he left, he was the new head coach, part of a stunning shake-up that saw Clarke quit and Ken Hitchcock fired only eight games into the season.
"I've always wanted to be a head coach, but I've never wanted to be in a hurry to get there," Stevens said. "I felt that if I continued to grow as a coach, my opportunity would come."
Now, here it is.
"Yeah, a little sooner than expected," Stevens said, smiling inside his office after running his fourth practice. "I do feel good. I do feel confident. I'm ready for this."
The Flyers certainly believe the 40-year-old Stevens is ready to run the show and rally the Flyers out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and back into playoff contention.
He's already proved himself a winner with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL affiliate. Stevens led the Phantoms to an AHL-record 17-game win streak and the 2005 Calder Cup. The team was loaded with nearly a dozen players now on the Flyers.
Stevens earned a reputation as a player's coach, with an open-door policy and a willingness to forgive mistakes as long as the effort was there and a lesson was learned. After Hitchcock was fired, some players, like centre Mike Richards, felt Stevens was a better fit with a younger team than the tirelessly demanding, stubborn Hitchcock.
"If you have a problem, you can go talk to him any time," goalie Antero Niittymaki said. "If he has a problem with you, he'll come tell you that. He's an honest coach and I really like that about him."
Though he has a more laid-back reputation than his predecessor, Stevens is no less demanding. Stevens recalled booting the Phantoms off the ice minutes into a post-season practice when he felt they had a soft attitude, later meeting with the captains to explain the team's work ethic was unacceptable.
"We came back with a vengeance the next day," Stevens said.
This week, he threatened to fine the entire team if one player was late for a workout session, sending some players scrambling away from post-practice interviews to beat the clock.
Stevens never expected his shot behind the Flyers bench to happen like this. After the eye injury ended his career, he slid into an assistant's role with the Phantoms under Bill Barber. When Barber was named coach of the Flyers, Stevens was promoted to the head AHL job in 2000.
Stevens was hired as one of Hitchcock's assistants this season and was prepared to learn under his mentor for at least the next three years - the length of Hitch's contract.
Stevens really didn't want to be anywhere else but Philadelphia.
A former draft pick of the Flyers in 1984, Stevens had a 15-year pro career as defenceman, including 53 NHL games with Philadelphia and the Hartford Whalers. Barely half an NHL season's worth of games, only a forgotten footnote in the all-time list of players.
"Looking back, I was probably never good enough to play full time in the NHL," he said. "I played 53 games in the NHL and I probably shouldn't have played any."
He got there on the strength of some of the other intangibles that would define his coaching career. He was captain on the Phantoms, won the team's fitness award and often invited his younger teammates over for dinner. Even in his 30s and a true NHL career becoming a distant dream, he always came to the ice looking to learn and preaching the value of hard work.
Sounds simple enough. But over a long hockey season, those tasks can become downright gruelling.
And it could have been easy to become bitter after that night in Kentucky in 1999 when a puck smashed his eye like someone taking a hammer to an egg.
The upper sinus, inner nasal and orbital bones were crushed. He had a detached retina. His depth perception was compromised, complicating routine household tasks like hanging a picture or pouring juice.
"I just leave it the way it is. My left eye takes over," Stevens said.
It's not a subject he voluntarily brings up and many of the Flyers didn't even know their coach was nearly blinded on one eye.
The injury certainly hasn't hampered his coaching. He won a title in Philly - how many coaches around here can say that? - and interviewed for the coaching vacancy in Anaheim that off-season.
Even with a NHL coaching job dangled in front of him, Stevens couldn't bring himself to leave.
"My family loved it here, I loved being part of the Flyers organization. The timing wasn't right," he said. "After the first interview, I decided not to continue. I was flattered that they thought that highly of me. I just felt for a lot of reasons that I wasn't ready to do it at that time."
The Flyers sorely need everything that made Stevens successful in the minor leagues to translate to the NHL. Off to their worst start in 17 seasons, Stevens wasted little time making an imprint, tinkering with the lines and mixing up the practice drills.
The Flyers responded with a win Thursday in his coaching debut, a 3-2 shootout win over Atlanta.
"Hitch was a guy that had a lot of success here, but unfortunately with the slow start, we needed a change," centre Randy Robitaille said. "Johnny brings in a new attitude and a new belief. It is kind of like a new beginning."
A new beginning only nine games into the season? However the Flyers want to rationalize it, they'll need to play better defensively and on the power play, no matter who the coach is, to reach the playoffs.
"There's a whole season ahead of us to turn this thing around," Stevens said. "We're going to look at this as parts of a season and this may be a small part that didn't have an effect on the entire season."