Wednesday, February 18, 1998
Stevens' time is now
Over the years, he'd joined four of Al Eagleson's European road shows to the World Championships. He understood the thrill of wearing a maple leaf on his jersey. But to wear Canada's colours at an Olympic Games, Stevens realized, would be a perfect book end to the Stanley Cup he won in New Jersey.
"I first started thinking about this when I saw the NBA Dream Team," said Stevens. "To get invited now is a once in a lifetime shot for me and a lot of the other guys."
Stevens, 33, doesn't expect to be invited back in 2002. He joins guys like Ray Bourque, Wayne Gretzky, Shayne Corson, Al MacInnis, Steve Yzerman and Patrick Roy whose first Olympics will be their last.
All those years of experience will be crucial to Canada if it is to continue through to the gold-medal game. None of them have the footspeed of their youth, but they have savvy. They know how to think and how to adapt, and that will be crucial if Team Canada is to pull together and learn overnight how to beat the best teams in the world on the large, international ice surface.
For a defenceman, the adjustments are immense. He must cope with the extra acreage in the corners and behind the net. Shots come from different angles, which affects rebounds. Forwards come bounding through the expansive neutral zone at full speed. Players are more spread out, making it difficult to step up and deliver a hit.
In the NHL, the game is played in compact areas. A defenceman can take three strides from the front of the net and rub a winger into the corner boards before he has time to turn and make a pass. On larger ice, the defenceman needs an extra stride, giving opposing forwards time to sidestep the hit and make a play. NHL defenceman usually succeed with a physical game; the Olympic game is for thinkers.
"It's hard for everyone to change from what works for them in the NHL," Stevens said. "But it's a much different game over here."
Stevens made his mark in the NHL as a tough, physical defenceman. But he says that, to conform with the defensive system of Jacques Lemaire, he has become more of a pokechecker in recent years. That style is well suited for the international game.
"I've had to change my game to be more of a positional and pokechecking player," Stevens said. "That's what the coaches are looking for here. Our priority is to use the pokecheck first to try to keep their forwards from getting position in front of the net.
"If an opportunity comes up to take a hit, then, sure, we can go for it. But we're not supposed to go out looking for it. Our priority is to stay on the defensive side of the puck and not let the forwards go to the net. We're trying to keep everything on the outside."
On the blackboard, the Xs and Os of this strategy make sense. Implementing it, however, is a challenge. It is basically a zone defence, with the defencemen working with the centre to cover specific areas in the defensive zone. It is a plan that requires thinking and patience. It falls apart as soon as the defencemen or centres abandons the zone to chase after a puck carrier.
Because the system is similar to what the Devils employ, a player like Stevens can pick it up quickly. The same goes for Ray Bourque. But Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger play more of a man-to-man coverage style in St. Louis. They've had to make a bigger adjustment.
"That's the biggest adjustment for us a team," Stevens said. "We all play different systems back home. We've come over here and had to adapt one style without a training camp or much practice time.
"We need to focus on our coverage down low. That's the key. One defenceman has to be on the puck carrier, the other has to stay in front of the net, reading the play and reacting if a high guy comes into the slot, and the centre acts sort of like the safety."
The quickest way for the coverage to fall apart is for a defenceman to get beat in the corner. That's probably the toughest adjustment for an NHL-style, rub-a-guy-out defenceman. It is much more difficult to ride a guy into the boards. The offensive player has more time and more space to sidestep a hit. If a defenceman commits himself and misses, the offensive player becomes extremely dangerous coming out the corner.
"At home, you have to get right on the puck carrier in the corner and take him out," Stevens said. "Here you have to be more patient and more careful. You can't commit yourself too soon. The most important thing is to always remain between the puck carrier in the goal. You can't afford to go for the hit and miss."
On the larger ice surface, if the defence keeps the play to the outside, the man with the puck is not dangerous. A strong, technical goalie like Patrick Roy will make the save on shots from the periphery. The shooter only becomes dangerous when he steps inside the defenceman, or if he is allowed to wheel in behind the goal.
"We have to turn him into the corner and cut off the area behind the net," Stevens said. "Behind the net is a very dangerous spot. We don't want the play back there."
Stevens' overseas expeditions to world championships have earned him two bronze and one silver medal. His collection is missing one colour.
"Exactly," he says. "I'm like the rest of the guys. We've come this far for only one thing - to win the gold medal."