Stevens thankful for life in a hockey family

John McCreary

By Alan Fuehring AHL On The Beat

The Stevens family Thanksgiving takes place on two coasts, at multiple tables, and the only way they’ll get any face time is by using FaceTime.

But such is the life of a hockey family and for Bridgeport Sound Tigers rookie forward John Stevens, he’s thankful to be a part of a successful one that includes an NHL coach and a collegiate captain.

Stevens’ dad, John Stevens Sr., is currently the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and a former NHL and AHL defenseman. Stevens’ younger brother Nolan is a fifth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues and the current captain at Northeastern University.

Take a guess what they’ll talk about over turkey.

“We obviously talk a lot of hockey,” Stevens laughed. “I feel bad for my mom sometimes because my brother, my dad and I will sit at the dinner table and just talk hockey for hours, but we love it.”

The game has been a focal point of Stevens’ life since he was a kid. John Stevens Sr. played 53 NHL games with the Philadelphia Flyers and Hartford Whalers and more than 800 AHL contests spanning a 14-year playing career. John and Nolan were born right in the middle when he was playing for the Springfield Indians.

“We fell in love with the game at such a young age,” Stevens said. “It’s all we’ve ever wanted to do and I’ve been fortunate to have endless support along the way. I think growing up around hockey and going to the rink with my dad and watching his games, whether he was playing or coaching. I just wanted to do what he did.”

Stevens would watch his dad’s games, but as a player and aspiring coach, his dad wouldn’t always have time to watch his and Nolan’s games live.

“My dad always being so busy, he could never get to many games, so my mom would actually videotape our shifts, so during the week we’d watch those back with him.”

Stevens followed in the footsteps set before him. At the age of five, John and Nolan joined the same team at Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell, New Jersey, playing alongside another familiar face, Matt Gaudreau, who made his professional debut with the Sound Tigers last month. Eventually, John advanced his way to the United States Hockey League, collecting 48 points in 59 games during the 2012-13 campaign and helping Dubuque capture the Clark Cup Championship.

The New Jersey native then shifted his focus to the college game and scored 106 points (26 goals, 80 assists) in 138 games during a four-year career at Northeastern University in Boston. He captained the Huskies as a senior, won the NCAA’s Hockey East title in 2015-16 and spent three of his four seasons skating alongside his brother Nolan.

“That was really special for us both,” Stevens said. “Everything came full circle from our days at Hollydell and it was an unbelievable experience getting to share the ice with him.”

On March 27, 2017, Stevens agreed to a two-year, entry-level deal with the New York Islanders and arrived in Bridgeport the next day, sharing a row on the train with Gaudreau, who had also signed an amateur tryout contract with the Sound Tigers that week. He went on to earn an assist and a plus-3 rating in eight games with Bridgeport last season, including his professional debut on March 31 against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms – the franchise his dad previously played and coached for.

Stevens played with confidence and came away from his limited experience in the AHL with a profound sense of determination and encouragement. And those qualities never faded as summer passed and his first pro training camp arrived.

“I thought he was outstanding in camp, both with the Islanders and here,” Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson said. “He kept his head down, worked hard and was very coachable. He’s a huge asset for our team.”

But Stevens’ start to the 2017-18 season was delayed due to an unexpected upper-body injury that occurred just one day before opening night. 

“I think it was the worst time for an injury, especially when you train so hard all summer and you feel like you’re ready to go out and make an impression – right off the bat,” Stevens said. “Not being able to be in the lineup and help the team win early on this season was definitely the worst time to sit out.”

But there was a silver lining, and Stevens recognized it right away.

“Adversity early on keeps you focused,” Stevens said. “I was focused more than ever.”

The first-year forward returned to the lineup on Nov. 3 and made an impact right away. He earned an assist in his season debut against the Providence Bruins and recorded points in each of his first three games, including his first professional goal on Nov. 5 in a rematch at Providence, just 49 miles from Northeastern’s campus. Nolan and a few college teammates were there to witness it live.

“No matter what team you play for, it always helps to get that first one out of the way and it was definitely more special with my brother and former teammates in the building,” Stevens said.

“Last year when we played (in Providence), I had about 18 college teammates there and it was awesome. I think they were more excited than I was,” Stevens added, grinning from cheek-to-cheek.

That’s just like his family’s support – always passionate, if not always present – and usually centered around hockey. So when they gather around their table via iPhones and iPads, they’ll have lots of hockey to talk about.

“It always comes back to hockey. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”