Sam Donnellon: Flyers coach Stevens never misses sons' games, thanks to mom and video

John Stevens Jr. (left), 14, and brother Nolan, 12, begin playing tomorrow for national championships.
John Stevens Jr. (left), 14, and brother Nolan, 12, begin playing tomorrow for national championships.
Posted: March 31, 2009

STACY STEVENS remembers when the tradition began. John Stevens Jr. was 7, had just been on the winning team in a huge Canada-American hockey tournament.

His father, John Stevens the senior, was hundreds of miles away, somewhere in some New England AHL town, making a buck.

"I did not take a video camera to the games," the wife of the Flyers' coach was saying as she waited out her two sons' hockey practice last week. "And at the end of the tournament one of the dads came out of the locker room and said, 'Your son is going to make me cry. He was just looking around the locker room and all the dads were hugging their kids and he looked at me as serious as you can be at 7 and said, 'I wish my dad could be here, too.'

"I got all choked up. And the next year I started videoing. So John could see his games."

She's been doing it ever since, building a library that had to be digitalized recently, to preserve room in their Washington Township house. But Stacy has a dilemma this week: Beginning tomorrow, her two sons are playing in national championship tournaments at the same time, miles from each other. Nolan, who is 12, will center a line for Team Comcast's Pee Wee team in Indian Trail, N.C. John Jr., 14, will center a line that includes Derian Hatcher's son, Chase, on the Team Comcast Bantam team that will be competing in Frisco, Texas.

Mom will accompany the little guy, send her parents to watch John in Texas. Hatcher, sidelined after last summer's knee surgery, and his wife, Heather, also will be looking out for him.

But it is the first time Stacy will be this far from her eldest.

"The pieces of the puzzle fit together," she said. "Still, I'm kind of getting an ulcer thinking about nationals."

John Stevens will miss it, too, at least live. Nothing unusual about that. The job of professional coach, especially in this era of advance scouting and preparation, is pretty near 24-7. Certainly it is more time-exhausting than when he was a Phantoms player and occasional Flyers call-up in the 1990s. Back then when the team was in town, he could make it home for lunch most days.

"That's been the biggest adjustment," Stacy said. "You had so much more family time when he was a player. As soon as John walked through the door, little John would walk up to him with that goalie stick."

The kids were young and not so involved in their hockey yet, which for John Jr. now involves four practices and two games between this Triple A travel team and his St. Augustine high school team. Sometimes dad can break free for a practice or a pickup, sometimes the schedule even allows him to watch a game. And while they still try stringently to wedge in some family dinners, the Stevenses are more likely to dine at Wawa than sit for an hour or 2 at the dining room table.

The other night, Stevens committed to doing Bill Clement's radio show in Northeast Philly. The family went with him and dined out afterward just so they could have dinner together.

Now in his third season as head coach, Johnny's dad has built a reputation as a detail guy and a cerebral guy, someone capable of thinking outside the box. You'll never get him to don a Scott Hartnell wig, even for a photo, but it was his idea to switch lockers around when the Flyers hit a 10-game skid last season. And when R.J. Umberger struggled a few years back, he introduced him to an obscure concentration program that has allowed the Ohio State grad to thrive in the NHL.

He likes his technology. He has every Flyers game loaded on his laptop, backed up by hard drives in three places. Running his finger along the laptop mousepad, he can take you back and forth through a play a dozen times, stop it, start it, break it down, comment on it.

It has made him good at his job.

It has made him a good father, too.

When she first started, Stacy Stevens recorded the entire game, but the process was soon streamlined to include only John's and Nolan's shifts.

"I can watch a game in 15 minutes," said the coach. In those windows of opportunity, father and sons will sit and watch, and there will be a lesson or two in there as well.

"I like the way he looks at the video," John Jr. said. "Instead of telling me, 'Do this,' he says, 'You might want to try this.' Little things I could do better skill-wise. Maybe like instead of going to this area, go to this area. It will be more open. Or how to receive pucks on the ice better. Get a little lower on the stick. Being in the right spot."

Junior is his father's son. He looks you in the eye, searches for the exact word he wants to use, does not mumble or stumble through his short statements. Like his father, joy is expressed by the curvature of his lips. An all-out smile is akin to a laugh.

One of four boys, John Sr. worked in tobacco fields in Turkey Point, Ontario, at the age of 12 to help his parents pay for his hockey. Hockey was a religion to him then, as it is now. When he bought his house, the dropped living room was devoid of furniture for a while. It became a hockey rink for his two toddlers.

"My wife and I used to have to sing a couple of bars of the national anthem or they wouldn't play," he said. "They wore helmets and they would rock back and forth as we sang with their helmets in their hands the way real hockey players do."

And then . . . Dad played goalie. "John might not put the Hartnell wig on," said Stacy, "but he did put the goalie mask on every time for the kids."

Stacy Stevens smiles easily, willingly. Her laugh is her smile, and she smiles often. A Penn State graduate from Hershey, she fell in love with John when he played there for the Bears in the late '80s, when both were on crutches. "We heard every crutch joke there is," she said. They married in 1991 and Johnny came 3 years later.

Nolan was born 2 years later, in 1996.

Three years later, on a December night that Stacy still calls "the worst of my life," John Stevens took a deflected puck in his right eye, detaching his retina and ending his career. His boys are too young to remember him as a player, but he tells them all the time that they already have better hands than he ever did. Johnny is a playmaking center, often setting up Hatcher's son. Nolan is a sniper, a goal scorer.

"I don't know where they got those hands from," said John, curving into a smile.

Maybe it was the video lessons. Or the games in the empty living room. Or the thought, every time they jump over the boards, what they do could be a highlight when they meet up again with their dad. *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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