Stevens finally gets his NHL shot

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

VOORHEES, N.J. -- New Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Stevens seems to have arrived in the NHL overnight, but his road has been long.

After a mere eight games as an NHL assistant coach, John Stevens is now an NHL head coach. Flyers management opted for a major organizational shake-up after waking up Sunday morning dead last in the NHL with a 1-6-1 mark and a five-game homestand looming before what figures to be an agitated fanbase.

So, out went Ken Hitchcock. Franchise face Bob Clarke resigned, and Paul Holmgren will serve as interim general manager for the time-being.

In reality, Stevens is no overnight arrival but rather a name and face exceedingly familiar to long-time AHL observers.

Certainly Stevens has paid his dues. The former AHL defenceman - a heady, steady, stay-at-home type - played in 936 career AHL games and served as a head coach in another 528 AHL games before stepping into the NHL full-time this season.

Stevens won three Calder Cups as a player with Hershey, Springfield and the Philadelphia Phantoms. A 1984 Flyers draft pick, the Campbellton, N.B. native, who spent his OHL days with Oshawa, also logged six seasons in the Hartford Whalers organization before coming to Philadelphia in 1996 to join the Phantoms for their inaugural season. Stevens has remained there ever since.

His playing career ended after a December 1998 eye injury. After his retirement, Stevens served parts of two seasons as an assistant on Bill Barber's coaching staff with the Phantoms before assuming head-coaching duties with the Phantoms following the 1999-2000 season. He moved on to the Flyers to serve as an assistant coach this past June.

All told, the Phantoms went 230-206-44 in regular-season play under Stevens' guidance, along with the 2005 Calder Cup championship.

Stevens credits the AHL for aiding his coaching development.

"There is no question that for coaches the American League is just an unbelievable place to learn. It's just a great level of hockey, and there are all sorts of opportunities that stem from that if you're patient."

A new assistant coach to fill the role vacated by Stevens has yet to be named. Stevens expects to sit down with assistant coach Terry Murray and new interim general manager Paul Holmgren to iron out that situation and in the meantime will rely heavily on Murray, himself a former Flyers head coach.

Stevens visibly began his first day on the job with mixed emotions and struggled to get past the idea that he was replacing Hitchcock. Hitchcock, termed by Stevens a "mentor" and a "friend," had worked closely with Stevens over the recent seasons.

Hitchcock's departure, along with that of general manager Bob Clarke, left Stevens feeling bittersweet.

"It kind of bothers me that a friend isn't working anymore. It's a tough day for Philadelphia Flyers hockey, in my opinion."

How will Stevens differ from Hitchcock?

"Well, I'm younger and I'm not as grey," Stevens joked, cutting a bit of the tension that had hung over the proceedings all day.

But Stevens appeared uncomfortable handling the question.

"I don't know. I don't know if I even want to go there. I think the world of Hitch as a coach and as a person. He's taught me a lot. He really has been a good mentor for me. Maybe just that I'm younger and I'm closer to having been removed from the game as a player. I've more recently worked with young players."

As for systems, do not expect any drastic changes. While with the Phantoms, Stevens employed a system similar to that used by Hitchcock.

"I like the system that we play," Stevens explained. "I just think that our execution needs to improve. I'd like to see us loosen up and not be so tight with the puck."

Stevens takes over a scene in which 11 current Flyers have played for him at one point or another with the Phantoms. Nine of those players, many of whom are considered to be the cornerstone of the Flyers' future, were core members of the Phantoms' 2005 Calder Cup championship team.

"I had a relationship in the past [with those players]. You're going to get over any of that uneasiness [from the coaching change] because we know each other so well."

"Any bit of familiarity within the group will be helpful."

Stevens appeared to circle the wagons a bit. Given the Flyers' current predicament in one of the fiercest hockey environments not residing on Canadian soil, the Flyers have taken heavy criticism from their fan base and the Philadelphia media.

"I think the first thing that we have to do is say that we're all responsible for the situation we're in. There is no help outside the locker room right now. This is the group that is going to do it."

Though Stevens is a hockey junkie through and through, he has been careful to balance his professional and family life. In the vagabond life that the AHL can be, Stevens has managed to plant roots in the Philadelphia area since his 1996 Phantoms debut.

The life of a minor-league coach can be difficult on coaches and their families. After the Phantoms won the 2005 Calder Cup, Stevens attracted a suitor in Anaheim that summer. The Ducks were interested, but Stevens elected to put his family first.

Some wondered at the time whether Stevens had passed up on a golden opportunity, especially when he remained with a Phantoms team that failed to qualify for the postseason the following season.

But to this day Stevens has remained firm and unyielding in his reasoning.

"My family was comfortable here. My family really weighed a lot into that decision because we had been here long enough and wanted to stay here."

"I wasn't quite ready to leave the Flyers organization. I ultimately wanted to be an NHL head coach, but it wasn't as if I needed a fast track to get there. My reasons for staying were really family-oriented, and the timing just wasn't right."

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THREE QUESTIONS FOR NEW PHILADELPHIA FLYERS HEAD COACH JOHN STEVENS:

HOW WILL STEVENS AS AN NHL HEAD COACH DIFFER FROM STEVENS THE AHL HEAD COACH?

Stevens: "Hopefully I won't [be different]."

"We ask a lot of our players. We're going to ask them to work hard, we're going to have to make a commitment to the team, and that is the same as it was with the Phantoms."

"There are different concerns [as an NHL and AHL head coach]. Guys in the American League want to get to the NHL, so sometimes they have those things that they are dealing with."

"In some senses it's easier, and in other senses it's more difficult."

HOW WILL DIFFICULT AHL EXPERIENCES BENEFIT STEVENS NOW AS AN NHL HEAD COACH?

Stevens: "I've gone through some tough times in the American League. You can't have a knee-jerk reaction. The thing that I've learned that has helped me the most is that the process is the most important [thing]. Whatever we do, we have to stick together. If we lose, we do it together."

"I think it's important guys understand why we do things, why there is value in the things that we do, so that we don't have to tell them to do them, they do them because they know they're important. When we can get to that point, we'll be a pretty good hockey team and winning games."

"We're not just going to tell them to do things. We're going to tell them why we want them done and show them the value in those things in the hopes that they'll do them even when the coach isn't looking, and that's the whole key."

WHAT WAS LEARNED LAST SEASON WHEN THE PHANTOMS FINISHED IN LAST PLACE?

"There's no question that [the difficulties] helped. To be honest with you, last year I probably learned as much as I ever did."

"When your players play [hard] like that when there is nothing on the line, it tells you that they find value in being a teammate."

"I really learned last year to come in during tough times and build hope in the players and keep them in the mindset that they're coming to the rink to get better."


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