Former 50-goal scorer Kevin Stevens went to court Thursday thinking there was a good chance he’d be led in handcuffs, with his family and friends watching, directly to a federal prison. He’s been sober for the better part of a year now. He had passionate letters of recommendation from the likes of Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux and Bryan Trottier. He had former NHL Players’ Association executive director Paul Kelly representing him. But he was also guilty of selling oxycodone in New England, a part of the world where opioid use has become epidemic.
But Stevens was instead sentenced to probation, a $10,000 fine and community service, which will come in the form of him speaking to young people about the dangers of addiction to prescription drugs. The judge thought it would be best for Stevens to continue his rehabilitation from an addiction that stemmed from a devastating on-ice injury that occurred almost 24 years ago to the day.
And there had to be a sense that Stevens has indeed paid for his addiction. He is divorced, no longer works in hockey and lives in constant pain, both from the 1993 injury he suffered and from a near-fatal car accident in which he was involved almost four years ago.
“In my view, (Stevens) is a classic example of someone who is likely living with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy),” Kelly said. “You can’t diagnose CTE unless it’s post-mortem. But if there’s somebody who’s walking, living and breathing with CTE, it’s Kevin Stevens. He exhibits all of the signs of someone who has suffered a serious brain injury.”
It all started for Stevens the night of May 14, 1993. The Penguins, two-time Stanley Cup champions thanks in large part to Stevens, were playing the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the second round, a game the Penguins went on to lose in overtime. In the first period of that game, Stevens chased down Islanders defenseman Rich Pilon for a hit, but was knocked unconscious during the collision and fell to the ice face-first. Stevens broke his orbital bone, cheek, nose and teeth in the collision and required reconstructive facial surgery that forced doctors to peel back his face.
“Up until that point, this guy had never abused any kind of a non-prescription drug of any kind,” Kelly said. “All his problems thereafter are traceable, first to his addiction to painkillers, and from there he jumped into some other things that got him into some issues.”
And it has been almost a quarter of a century of struggling for Stevens ever since. He entered the NHL-NHLPA substance abuse program after a high-profile incident in suburban St. Louis. Former teammates, Lemieux chief among them, tried to reach out to help, but few were successful in helping Stevens in his battle with drugs and alcohol. Last spring, in an attempt to get more painkillers, Stevens reached out to a dealer who was part of a distribution ring in the south shore of Boston, who was also the target of an investigation. The dealer asked Stevens to pick up a supply of oxycodone at a train station and he did so, getting 175 pills. That conversation had been wiretapped and Stevens barely made it out of the parking lot before police confronted him.
"Because of the nature of who he is, he was honest to a fault,” Kelly said. “He immediately ’fessed up to everything and handed over the pills.”
Kelly said that from May of last year to this year is the longest sobriety Stevens has had from painkillers since 1993. Kelly also said that after Stevens attended the 25th reunion of the 1992 Stanley Cup-winning team, he received calls from a couple of his former teammates.
“Mario Lemieux and Bryan Trottier contacted me and said, ‘Geez, Kevin looks better, he sounds better than we’ve seen him in 20 years. He’s dropped weight, he’s happy, he seems to be able to carry on a conversation,’ ” Kelly said. "There were long stretches of time where he battled fits of depression and he was very dour and his weight got away from him. But he actually looks good now. Since I started this criminal case with him a year ago, I think he’s dropped 40 or 50 pounds.”
Stevens now lives in Weymouth, Mass., with his girlfriend and their 2 ½-year-old son. His oldest son, Luke, a 2015 draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, just finished his freshman season at Yale. Daughter Kylie is a soccer player at Union and younger son Ryan is playing high school hockey at a private school near Boston. And now that he’s a relatively free man, Stevens wants to make a difference. Kelly said it was Stevens who suggested the community service aspect of his sentence.
“He’s in a better place than he’s been in decades,” Kelly said. “He’d like to be part of the solution to the opioid crisis rather than a contributor to the problem. So yesterday was a big step in that direction.”