EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — When John Stevens steps behind the bench tonight for the Kings' home opener against the Flyers, it will be 2,862 days since the last time he found himself in this same position (without the interim tag) in the National Hockey League … with the Flyers, no less.
“It’s been so long now,” the 51-year-old Stevens said Thursday. “Seven years have passed since I coached there. I spent a long time in Philadelphia. I have an enormous amount of respect for the organization. It’s always an exciting matchup because it’s a historic franchise. We’re looking forward to it.”
Perhaps there’s a sense of irony that Stevens' first game back will come against the organization who relieved him of his duties on Dec. 4, 2009, following a 3-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on home ice. That was a Flyers team struggling to find an identity — with a 13-11-1 record at the time of Stevens' firing — following the offseason acquisition of defenseman Chris Pronger. Optimism was high as then-general manager Paul Holmgren assembled a team he believed could dethrone the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference, and Stevens was well aware of the expectations.
“I think just incorporating everybody there, getting them on the same page and just dealing with the whole leadership issue is something I may have tackled a little differently, but if you look back, we got off to a great start that year, we had some injuries, and then we let it slip away after that great start," Stevens said. "Clearly, I didn’t do enough to get that ship righted when we had such a good start."
Stevens was tasked with plugging holes during the shipwreck of 2006-07 when general manager Bob Clarke stepped down and Ken Hitchcock was fired on the same Sunday morning just nine days into the regular season. Stevens was given the head coaching job on an interim basis and proceeded to navigate his way through that tumultuous year as the Flyers finished with just 56 points, a whopping 45-point decline from the previous season.
Beginning Thursday night, Stevens takes over a situation with a Kings organization looking for a similar turnaround after missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons. Despite winning two Stanley Cup championships under Darryl Sutter, the Kings' players are embracing Stevens after the relationship between the players and their former coach had developed such animosity that at one point the Kings' players reportedly locked Sutter out of the dressing room.
“It’s definitely refreshing to hear his voice behind the bench,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said of Stevens.
“He was my positional coach for a long time,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “When he first came in, we had a few bumping head issues, me and him, but ever since those issues got smoothed out, it’s been smooth sailing from then on. He’s taught me a lot about being a professional and being a leader on the team. He’s also helped me a lot with my on-ice stuff, too. He’s a very smart hockey mind. He knows a lot about the game and he cares a lot about his players, and he wants the best for everyone.”
For a coach that has been just as attached to X’s and O’s as a giddy high school couple, Stevens has also exuded leadership throughout his hockey career. He captained the Phantoms to the Calder Cup in 1997, coached them to a championship in 2005, and has passed down that leadership skill set to his two sons: John Stevens Jr. and Nolan Stevens, both of whom have worn the “C” at Northeastern University in Boston.
But what Doughty and the Stevens' boys have imparted to John is a personal element that comes into coaching that perhaps wasn’t nearly as evident during his days with the Flyers.
“Relationships have always been important," Stevens said. "I’ve been a captain on every team I’ve played on, so I think that you’re a coach within the locker room. But seeing my kids play at a high level, you see how important feedback is to them. I think it’s really brought it more so to my attention. I think through my experiences of successes and failures, I maybe delve into those relationships, especially with older players, more so than I did before. I think all players appreciate being coached and all players appreciate feedback.”
Derailing the 'Wayne Train'
Wayne Simmonds got the best of reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns Wednesday night. Simmonds gets a crack at another one of the league’s top blueliners in Doughty, who won the Norris Trophy in 2016. Doughty is well aware of the problems Simmonds presents.
“He does his magic around the net, and he definitely makes his living in front of the net,” Doughty said. “There’s not much you can do on a power play besides block shots or get under his stick. They've got a good power play and he’s a big reason to that. You've just got to play him hard because you know how hard he’s going to play every night. He’s a competitive guy. You've got to battle him hard. It’s going to be a tough job, but he’s not going to hat trick tonight.”
Tragedy ... again
The Los Angeles Kings organization was devastated once again when 22-year-old Christina Duarte, a native of nearby Redondo Beach, California, was one of nearly 60 people killed at the country music festival across from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Sunday. Duarte had recently graduated from college and was working her first full-time job — as a fan service associate with the organization.
Duarte’s death comes 16 years after the Kings organization tragically lost “Ace” Bailey who was flying aboard United flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Bailey served as the team’s director of pro scouting.
The Kings' players will wear a heart-shaped “CD” sticker on the back of their helmets and the team’s personnel will wear a pin to honor Duarte’s memory.
“For sure, it’s going to be emotional,” Kopitar said. “Obviously, it’s very sad times. We'll use that as a positive energy.”
The Kings are donating their 50/50 raffle from Thursday’s game against the Flyers to the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund.