Devils still lean on Stevens' competitive fire

It was at the NHL All-Star Game a few years back that Scott Stevens tossed out a little aside that caught a few reporters by surprise.

Stevens, it seems, didn't like the format of the game because it meant he had to try to be buddy-buddy with players on other teams.

"To tell you the truth," he said, "I'm not really comfortable in this environment."

No, Stevens didn't like all the false friendships. Stevens didn't like the no hitting. Stevens didn't like the hully-gully, highlight-reel games.

Scott Stevens is much more comfortable when players hate each other, when they hit to hurt, when championships are on the line. Stevens is the consummate competitor and the ultimate playoff performer. That's why it was so perfect that he played his 228th career playoff game Thursday and helped bring the New Jersey Devils one step closer to their third Stanley Cup championship in the past eight years.

In passing the milestone, Stevens now has played more playoff games than any other defenseman in history. In New Jersey, that means something.

"I hate to go with too bold of a statement, but he may go down as the greatest defenseman to play the game," old friend Ken Daneyko said. "I wouldn't have said that last year or the year before, but now that I've watched him this year and the level he's playing at consistently. If you're looking at all-around defenseman, he'll go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest defenseman ever."

That might be too bold of a statement, but it shows just how much Stevens means to the Devils. It also shows just how much he has been overlooked in his career. The mention of his name among the all-time greats seems strange at first. Heck, it hardly seems real that he's topped Larry Robinson's mark of playoff games played. It seems he somehow isn't in that class of player.

But his coaches will say that he is, his teammates will say he is, and his opponents will say he is.

"He's a silent leader, I usually like those guys better," Devils coach Pat Burns said. "He doesn't often get the recognition of those kinds of players, (but) he should."

Anaheim's Steve Thomas added: "He's just a really consistent player. He doesn't make many bad plays. He doesn't get goaded into bad penalties. He isn't a dirty hitter. I mean, he just shows up every game and does his job."

And that example has earned him the nickname of "Dad" in the Devils locker room.

"When you have the nickname Dad, you know you're getting old," said Stevens, 39, who adds that he doesn't like talking about his age.

But the "Dad" moniker is more loving than jabbing.

"Oh, we all get on him about his age, but nobody really cares," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. "He is our dad. He's the one who takes care of us."

In fact, "Dad" fits him perfectly. As much as Brodeur is the image of the organization, Stevens is the heart and soul. He sets the tone, he sets the discipline, he is the quiet voice of reason in times of trouble. And yet he also scares the bejesus out of anybody who crosses him on the ice. Just as you were probably in awe of your dad's power, the Devils sit in quiet awe of Stevens.

"If he wanted to, he's one of those guys who could play until he's 45," center Scott Gomez said. "And the thing is, he's going out every night and playing big minutes against the other team's top guy every shift. It's pretty awesome to watch."

Added Madden: "Just being around him and watching him, you learn so much. He's quiet and professional, but there is a fire that burns inside of him, and I think maybe that's the most impressive thing."

And that fire has those associated with the Devils believing that Stevens could be around for years to come.

"He's got the best body on the team, so I never think of him as old," Madden said. "He's old school, but he's not old."

Robinson played until he was 42, and he sees a similar future for Stevens, whom he coached for several years with the Devils.

"What's (Igor) Larionov? 42? I was 42 when I quit," Robinson said. "Scott is in great shape. He takes care of himself and he plays smart. He can play for a while longer."
And that's exactly what Stevens plans to do. He will retire as a Devil. It's just a matter of when.

"I like the organization. I like their beliefs. I think we complement each other," he said. "What they want is what I want, and that's to win and be successful. That's the most important thing."

If he continues to play and win, then the talk might really heat up about where he belongs in the history of the game. He is not far from becoming the all-time leader in playoff games played. He is not far from being known as the greatest defensive defenseman of all time. He might, in a few years, be able to throw his hat into the ring of Orr and Bourque and Harvey.

"It's something I think you have to consider," Daneyko said.

Just don't invite him to too many All-Star Games. Y'know, it's not really his style.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.