The Athletic is a paywalled sports site with the intention to provide sports coverage for teams in the wake of a media landscape where newspapers and other traditional forms of media gave way. It is more than a blog. It was an attempt to backfill in what media corporations did for sports in North America and, later, abroad. It is also a member of Big Media. It is a part of The New York Times Company as of January 2022. As such, they are seen as a source of news with opinions at least worth well-reading.
That is the theory. The practice is that it is beat writers from papers keeping on keeping on from what they did for their papers, some teams - like the New Jersey Devils - are essentially ignored, and their features include Sean “DownGoesBrown” McIndoe writing quirky pieces that he used to do on free sites. It is essentially a blog where the only valuable original information is whether they get Katie Strang to write something serious or when Scott Wheeler or Corey Pronman have something to say about prospects. And even that has competition with Rick Westhead at TSN and various prospect sites and personnel like Elite Prospects, Dobber Prospects, Will Scouch, and more. Nothing wrong with that. This is a blog, too. But this is free. You can (and do) point out when, how, and why I am wrong for the cost of nothing more than what you pay for Internet access. The Athletic? Well, you have to pay for the privilege to read what they have to say.
The Athletic has embarked on a list of the Top 100 NHL players in history. I know, a list. A grand and totally innovative idea from the group now owned by the New York Times. Each entry comes with a retrospective about the player. Today was #49 for Scott Stevens. Given that Stevens played his last game on January 4, 2004, it is wholly appropriate to have a retrospective of the player. There is at least a generation who only has heard of his past. Plus, Stevens absolutely belongs on a Top 100 list as he was named a Hockey Hall of Famer just as he was allowed to enter it in 2007; the captain of the New Jersey Devils during their most successful era of three Stanley Cups and four Finals appearances within ten seasons; a five time NHL All-Star member (and all-rookie NHL team member); the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2000; and the defenseman who sits 12th all-time in regular season points with 908 in 1,635 games. Stevens is one of the best defensemen in NHL history.
This retrospective was written by Sean Fitz-Gerald. Hardly a nobody. He is an Important Journalist. Per his bio at The Athletic, a part of New York Times Company:
Sean Fitz-Gerald is a senior national writer for The Athletic. As a reporter, he has covered the Olympics, Pan American Games, Super Bowl, Grey Cup, NHL playoffs and the NBA playoffs. In 2015, he was named sportswriter of the year by Sports Media Canada.
And yet when you actually read the piece, Fitz-Gerald wrote like he was planning to make Steve Simmons (or some other notoriously poor beat reporter here) look fair and balanced. I have to think he drew a short straw for this assignment and Was Not Happy About It. I also have to question whether Fitz-Gerald is a Toronto fan still mad about the night the Devils held the Leafs to six shots on net in a playoff game. The retrospective that he wrote and The Atheltic is garbage. So much so that we cannot just drive by it and ignore it like most garbage. No, we need to take out this trash.
Since The Athletic is a paywalled site, I cannot traditionally Fisk it and refute it line by line. I shall quote relevant parts to represent the sections of the piece Fitz-Gerald pooped out of word processing program.
Fitz-Gerald’s piece on Scott Stevens, NHL defenseman who played over 1,600 NHL regular season games, begins with Bob Bassen. Who, you ask? Believe it or not, he had a long career of 15 seasons and 765 games as a depth forward for the Islanders, Chicago, St. Louis, Quebec, Dallas, and Calgary. Fitz-Gerald details a time where Scott Stevens, then 23 years old, hit Bassen hard. Bassen fell down hurt. Bassen does not want to watch the hit again. He admitted it was a part of the game back then - which Fitz-Gerald immediately jumps past to set up the central thesis of this retrospective of the 12th all-time leading scorer among defensemen in NHL history:
Stevens was good at so many parts of the game, but it is that physical part for which he is broadly best remembered. The LinkedIn page of his career is filled with massive, highlight-reel hits that sometimes only need a single surname to trigger immediate visual recall: Kariya. Lindros.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007 and a decade later, the NHL listed him among its top 100 players of all time. Stevens is No. 49 on The Athletic’s list of the 100 greatest NHL players of the modern era, though the more modern the era, the grainier his legacy becomes.
It is true that Stevens’ physical play stood out. He was excellent at it. He was also excellent at a lot of other things too. You would not get that impression from how Fitz-Gerald opened it. And this section shows his thesis. You see, Scott Stevens threw really hard hits. And that is Bad Now. Problematic. It makes his past Complicated. I’m sure Fitz-Gerald wanted to add “even a little bit Yikes for me” but he has a semblance of professionalism. One could argue this could be where he focuses on what else Stevens did but, spoiler alert, Fitz-Gerald isn’t going to do that. The 2015 Sportswriter of the Year per Sports Media Canada doesn’t have the time for little things like research.
You also have the Hockey and Sports Media - of which The Athletic and the New York Times is a part of - to thank in part for Stevens’ reputation. In the 1980s, Stevens was stuck on a Washington team that was the definition of Good but Never Good Enough to Contend and was not always their top defenseman. Stevens scored a lot but not nearly as much as Al McInnis, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Phil Housley, and Larry Murphy - who all played in the same era. In the 1990s, the scoring dropped for Stevens (and the Devils) but Stevens re-worked his game to be a commanding defensive player. Since gap control, excellent positioning (in that era), and winning puck battles are not highlight-reel worthy, what got attention? Hits. Bodychecks. Slams so hard that Stevens resembled a linebacker in the NFL. Throwing his body like a heavyweight throws a hook. And like a heavyweight, knowing how to do it with control - something he did not have much of in the 1980s. Those hits on Lindros, Kariya, Shane Willis, and so forth were repeatedly replayed on ESPN and other news networks. As such, most know him for those hits and not the accolades he racked up in his career beyond the Stanley Cups. They were cheered then, and would even be cheered now since bodychecking is a part of this game.
But you see we cannot support that anymore. No, no. Fitz-Gerald trots out a doctor with this quote ironically attempting to headshot Stevens career:
“He was a fantastic athlete, no question,” said Dr. Charles Tator, a prominent Canadian neurosurgeon based in Toronto. “But he caused brain damage, in my view. And that’s not something to be proud of.”
Well, that’s just like your opinion, man.
Fitz-Gerald continues on. Shane Willis is the next person to bring up. got hit by Stevens so hard that he bled from his head in a playoff game in 2001. Fitz-Gerald noted that Willis never played in another playoff game and that concussion led to others and he was out of the game. Is Willis mad about this? Actually, no. Later on in this same piece by Fitz-Gerald, he quotes Willis:
“Was it high? No, because I saw him at the last second and was able to brace,” Willis said. “It was basically like running into a redwood tree at full speed.”
He never heard from Stevens after the game, but acknowledged that, 20 years ago, texting was still not part of the vocabulary. He said he does not have any long-term symptoms that he can trace back to any of the concussions he suffered as a player, including the one that actually makes him angry.
In a game that might not even have been on television, Willis said the late Bryan Marchment drove his elbow into the side of his head. “When I look at both of those, I have zero qualms about the hit Scott Stevens threw,” Willis said.
That did not stop Fitz-Gerald from framing Stevens as this kind of predator like Bryan Marchment. Marchment was absolutely a cheap-shot artist that threw elbows and targeted knees. The “one that actually makes him angry” was a Marchment elbow to his head according to Willis. Not the hit that Fitz-Gerald frames as the one that ended Willis’ promising career. Fitz-Gerald noting the Marchment elbow was not on TV reveals the reason why one gets more coverage than the other. Fitz-Gerald could not have seen the Marchment elbow. He just has to take the player’s word for it. Of course, he does not even do that since he set all of this up to make Stevens look like this unrepentant headhunter that took out Shane Willis’ career among others. Then again, Marchment is not making a Top 100 NHL anything outside of dirty players being ranked. Which, hey, maybe The Athletic will charge an extra fee to put that list together. Sean McIndoe can do it. I’m sure he would be up for that.
Also: Fitz-Gerald pulled a quote from Gary Roberts about Stevens headhunting Willis. Gary Roberts with his 2,560 penalty minutes is hardly one to be critical about not playing by the rules. Of which Stevens’ hits absolutely were at its time.
In fact, this is something that kept coming up in Fitz-Gerald’s piece. He would bring up a hit that Stevens threw that caused damage or would be seen today as dirty. Then later on, the player who was hit is asked about it and does not really hold anything against Stevens. That Bob Bassen hit that opened the piece to make Stevens look like some kind of nasty villain? Bassen stated this later on in Fitz-Gerald’s piece.
Bassen is a father of four and president of the Dallas Stars Alumni Association. He said he never considered Stevens to be a “dirty player.”
“You knew if you put yourself in a vulnerable position, there’s a chance that he’s coming with a clean hit — but a hard hit — to get you,” Bassen said. “I was always told by my dad to skate with the puck and have your head up. I made a mistake and it cost me.”
But this is buried in the middle of the piece, well after Fitz-Gerald brought up the hit. He did it with Willis. He put it a little closer together for Dave Poulin from the hit to Poulin stating that he did not blame Stevens for trying to hit him hard. So there’s that.
By the way, this is all written before Fitz-Gerald acknowledges what else Stevens has done in his career. What with the scoring, the number of games played, and a mere sentence about winning three Cups with the Devils. This little part that you would expect to come at the beginning of a retrospective of a player was buried in the middle. It also opens this way:
Stevens shifted into an everyday NHL role out of junior hockey. The Capitals picked him fifth, in 1982, and he played 77 regular season games as a teenage rookie. He was physical and – as part of an array of skills that would eventually be overshadowed – he could also generate offense.
Gee, Sean, I wonder why it’s overshadowed!
After this little section, Fitz-Gerald drives his larger thesis deeper with this part involving Bernie Nicholls:
Bernie Nicholls spent parts of two seasons with Stevens in New Jersey toward the end of his career. He laughed when asked how some of those hits would be received today: “You’d get suspended for life.”
“Scotty practiced like he played the game,” Nicholls said. “Obviously, he wouldn’t hit us. He’d be physical in the corners, being strong. But he’s not going to lay people out like he would in a game.
In retirement, Nicholls became one of the marquee names in a class-action lawsuit against the NHL for what players alleged was a failure to warn and protect them from concussions. (The case was settled for about $19 million in 2018, but the NHL did not acknowledge liability.)
And despite that, Nicholls does not find fault in how Stevens hit his opponents on the open ice.
“I’m still for hitting,” Nicholls said. “Our sport’s physical. It’s violent. Keep your head up. Scotty wasn’t dirty when he hit. You got your head down, you’d get hit.”
Fitz-Gerald’s main point is that Stevens’ most famous hits would not be allowed today and caused serious damage. As such, they should not be celebrated. Yet, Nicholls, Willis, Bassen, Poulin, me, and probably you all understand that Stevens did not throw those hits today. He threw them in the past. A past that already happened. A past without Rule 48 or a general awareness that CTE is a thing. A past where lots of players threw lots of hits like Stevens and worse than Stevens. Put a pin in that point, I will return to it later. We have to get to the stinkiest part first.
After about half of the piece of portraying Scott Stevens as this guy who throws big hits and hurt people and is known for only that by a media member - a former Sportswriter of the Year per Sports Media Canada! - who apparently only knew him for that and did no research, Fitz-Gerald decides it is not enough. Oh, no. Not villainous enough. Now we get to a more sensitive subject: sexual assault.
In May 1990, Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli, Geoff Courtnall, and Neil Sheehy were alleged to take part in a sexual assualt in a limousine outside of a bar in Washington D.C. They were brought in front a grand jury. The grand jury decided to not indict the players. In fact - and, to be fair, Fitz-Gerald did state this - Stevens was cleared and when he was brought to court, he was informed he was a witness and not charged. That there was even a suggestion that Stevens was involved in a crime led to Stevens leaving the Capitals as a free agent. Back when SBNation had local sites, Ted Starkey wrote a wonderful piece at DC’s local site describing what David Polie did in response as well as the case back in 2012.
Anyway, despite Fitz-Gerald noting that Stevens was A) not charged and B) cleared, he added this to the piece:
“Even if the players are legally innocent, what they did was morally wrong,” sports columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote in The Post. “Wrong if they participated. Wrong if they watched and didn’t try to stop it. Wrong if they stood lookout and allowed it to happen. It was more than bad judgment.”
Stevens never played another game with the Capitals. He signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues that summer. Multiple attempts to reach Stevens to comment for this story were unsuccessful.
More character assassination. Why is Tony Kornheiser - now known for being a proto-Twitter-sports-hot-take artist due to Pardon the Interruption (Thanks, Tony, Wilbon, and ESPN) - quoted at all? Why does his quote get any light when Fitz-Gerald stated parenthetically that Stevens was cleared and did not face charges? Stevens did not respond to comment? Why would he! He was cleared over
40 30 years ago! What is he going to comment on? That he was cleared by a grand jury over 40 30 years ago? Is Fitz-Gerald that stupid to expect something more? Does Fitz-Gerald think I am stupid to believe this “no comment” is something far more sinister? Maybe I am stupid since I have a subscription to The Athletic, a part of the New York Times Company.
As much as I agree that crimes like sexual assault need to be taken seriously, the sports media is still not very good at writing about it seriously. We have a legal system for a reason. This went through it and made their judgment. That Kornheiser, Polie, and apparently Fitz-Gerald are not satisfied by the result means absolutely nothing. Stevens and the others were brought in, the grand jury determined there was no issue. There was nothing else in Fitz-Gerald’s piece or elsewhere that would indicate they got off improperly. By writing it this way, Fitz-Gerald is winking and nudging that something far worse took place. That is not serious journalism.
I also agree that things like this should not be overlooked. In Stevens’ case, it was the reason why he became a St. Louis Blue. But I’m going to shock you when I tell you that sexual crimes directly or indirectly involving players was absolutely overlooked by Fitz-Gerald’s colleagues at The Athletic, a part of the New York Times Company in the retrospectives for Doug Gilmour, written by the quirky Sean McIndoe, or Jonathan Toews, whose piece was written by Mark “Don’t ask me about 2010, I didn’t cover the team until 2013” Lazerus and Dom “It’s not a stat so whatever” Luszczyszyn. This is not simple “whataboutism.” It is further proof that Stevens is being held to a very different standard and Fitz-Gerald has more of an axe to grind. Something not really befitting a former 2015 Sportswriter of the Year per Sports Media Canada.
After Fitz-Gerald goes over the sexual assault, he returns to Dr. Charles Tator. The man who does not think people should be proud of Scott Stevens. He has worked in hockey for quite a while. This leads to a section of Fitz-Gerald bringing up how Dr. Tator wants bodychecking banned from minor hockey until players are 18 and how the NHL has dealt (or not dealt) with CTE and head contact. Fitz-Gerald brings up former NHL player, AHL referee, and minor hockey and skills development coach Mike Duco for his take on all of this hitting.
Duco, who coaches teenagers, was asked how they might react to a Scott Stevens highlight reel.
“I think when the kids watch it, they don’t understand how it was allowed,” he said. “It definitely is far removed from the age group that I’m coaching.”
Given that Duco was a former player, surely he can explain how it was allowed? Well, no. His career in the OHL was from 2003 to 2008, played in North America from 2008 to 2012 (NHL and AHL), and ended his career after a season with Red Bull Salzburg. He was not there. But he surely met some people who were there then that could explain it. I can agree that it is a good thing that is not being coached. I am completely unclear why this is in a retrospective about Scott Stevens.
Then there is Dr. Tator. Who had this to say:
The idea of celebrating highlight-reel hits like the ones Stevens was known to deliver, he said, is “ridiculous, in my view.”
“I think he was doing what he was, let’s say, hired to do,” Tator said. “I think he was carrying out the wishes of those who were in charge of the game. And I think the people were misguided because I think they didn’t have a clear picture of the consequences.”
“Yes, he’s a great athlete,” Tator said. “Not too many people could knock somebody out with their shoulder. But it can’t be allowed. The brain is too important an organ.”
One: Again, this is your opinion, man. People are free to celebrate and exalt what they want. You may not like it. I may not like it. A sports media that is handwashing their past in making it something to celebrate while saying they do not approve can do that. But people are free to do it anyway.
Two: Remember when I said to put a pin earlier? Let us revisit it. Dr. Tator is under the assumption - and Fitz-Gerald does not correct him - that Stevens was “hired to do” throw hits. In a sport where bodychecking has been legal, is legal, and will be legal. Stevens did so in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. His hits were often legal at the time and even those hit by them acknowledge it. They were hard but rarely with an elbow or a run up of 10 feet (something Gary Roberts probably knows better about himself). There was not only little public knowledge of brain trauma, there were also no specific rules about contact to the head like there is today. Sure, referees can and do call roughing, elbowing (which something Stevens rarely did) or attempt to injure. Now there is Rule 48. There was not such a thing when Stevens played. And the idea that Stevens should have let up or was told to hit hard is laughable. Should shooters shoot the puck softer at goaltenders? Should players not push so hard when they skate up ice into space? Please.
More seriously, my understanding of the research is contact to the head at all creates the risk of brain damage. This is a concern for hockey, football, soccer, and any fighting sport like boxing and MMA (and the staged fighting of pro wrestling) that no one has any real answers to how address it. Taking physical contact out of a sport changes the sport dramatically. Possibly to a point where it is not recognizable, much less something someone wants to watch or play. It is a serious issue and the answers are not going to be particularly favorable. I do not have the answer. (Aside: No, women’s hockey fans, your game has a lot of players “skating into each other,” so your ruleset is not have the answer either.)
To this end, it is utterly stupid to lay this at the skates of Scott Stevens. Especially as he played in an era with guys like Gary Roberts, Bryan Marchment, and hundreds of others who caused a whole lot of damage - head trauma and otherwise - in a far more physical eras of today. To fault Stevens specifically for his hits or claim his legacy has been harmful is akin to faulting “The White Death,” Simo Häyhä for shooting people. Who, yes, he did a lot of that - in a war between Russia and Finland wherein a lot of people were shooting at a lot of other people. Stevens was the best hitter in a time where hitting was seen as important to the game and to the sports media, whom Fitz-Gerald is a part of, saw as something to highlight above anything else Stevens did. Blaming Stevens for this is stupid. Whether it is accidental from Fitz-Gerald or on purpose, well, I’ll let you decide.
Three: This quote is how the whole piece by Fitz-Gerald ends. Seriously. That’s it. It ends with Dr. Tator dismissing a Hockey Hall of Famer as “a great athlete” who just knocks people out with his shoulder. That’s the end of the post. In case you had any question what Fitz-Gerald’s agenda here is.
Far be it for me to say that retrospective of a player’s career has to be positive or just the facts. Criticism is fair to bring up. Parts of a career that did not go well or does not look the best are totally valid to include. However, this only works for a complete retrospective of the player.
Sean Fitz-Gerald of The Athletic, a part of the New York Times Company, did not do that. His piece on Scott Stevens began with a hard hit on Bob Bassen and ended with a quote from Dr. Charles Tator about knocking people out not being something to celebrate. If I were to give a copy of this post to someone who knew nothing about Scott Stevens, they would think he was nothing more than an overrated Jacob Trouba. Oh, and he was involved in a sexual assault, just ignore that “cleared by a grand jury” bit I’m sure he was told to put in there for legal reasons.
This is a classic hatchet job from a sportswriter with experience in the media business. What Stevens accomplished in his career gets brief mentions and nothing more. What he meant to the Devils was only slightly touched on. About 75% of this post is about Stevens throwing hits with the players who were hit not being to aggrieved by it and some players who were not hit by them declaring they are bad.
I am not disagreeing with Dr. Tator or Duco or anyone who says headshots are bad. I am more than OK with an update to Rule 48, young players not getting into checking until later in life, and more stringent calls for anything that resembles head contact. If you are going to the comments to claim otherwise, then I will suggest re-reading this post.
My main issue with this piece from Fitz-Gerald is that the piece does little more than to run down Scott Stevens as this villian of the game. One that The Athletic must begrudgingly acknowledge as one of the best ever. Of course, the piece does not explain why he is on the Top 100 anyway. It does not go into any of the other things that made Stevens a multiple-time all-star (the post-season award, not the in-season game). There is no attempt made by Fitz-Gerald to go into how he played defense. Or how he shut down opposing forwards like Pavel Bure, Mats Sundin, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, and many more without crushing them with a bodycheck. Or how his game transformed from his wild days as a Capital to his commanding days as the Devils leader. Or how he led a team to their greatest glories three times as he advanced in age. Or anything else. It is almost as if Fitz-Gerald decided to rely on his memory, his authority as a sportswriter, and his desire to make the narrative fit reality instead of the other way around. This is how he could write a piece about Scott Stevens as summarized as this:
Scott Stevens threw hard hits that are now bad, Stevens did some stuff but his hits are bad, Stevens was involved in a sexual assault case and did not comment about him being cleared in said case, and did you know that Stevens’ hits are now bad? Here is a doctor and a minor coach saying as such.
The Athletic thinks this is worth your money! Really!
By the way, did you know that The Athletic, a part of the New York Times Company, does not have anyone covering the Devils full-time? Clearly a factor in this piece being written for Stevens whereas others, like Gilmour and Toews, have far more favorable pieces written about them despite their pasts. Given the emphasis on hitting, it will not surprise you it was not so emphasized in similar pieces about other Top 100 players like Zdeno Chara. They played for teams that The Athletic does cover. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I doubt it.
One more thing: This piece also has an issue that I have with sports media. It is not an “excuse” to say that “things were different back then,” It is an explanation. To write about the past effectively, one has to actually appreciate the situation for what it was. We can look back and say things would not fly in 2022; but we have to also look back and acknowledge that things also did not happen in 2022. There is little value to using current standards to judge past things in sports. The rules of hockey and the game in the NHL were very different 40 years ago and that’s the time Stevens played in. He is not playing today. He is not coming over the boards. As such, he should be judged by those earlier standards because that is what they were held to. Again, Nicholls, Willis, Poulin, and Bassen understand this. The 2015 Sportswriter of the Year per Sports Media Canada, Sean Fitz-Gerald either does not or chooses not to.
I, a mere hockey blogger who does this for a hobby, know this. Surely, the 2015 Sportswriter of the Year in Canada, would know this. If he does not, he is a dummy. If he does, then he is a hack. The Athletic wants you to believe his work is worth paying for. I suggest saving your money. At least my takes going bad or not being well-written does not cost you anything. I will not charge you money here.
But, hey, it is all about image these days. Maybe Sean Fitz-Gerald and the deciders at The Athletic (and perhaps the New York Times Company) will learn this when they get profiled as overrated bloggers who took people’s hard earned money with crummy posts. Just kidding. Big Media doesn’t learn too well. After all, they’re adding ads to their subscribers’ access - something that paywalled traditionally offer as a reason to give them money. They want you to pay for the journalism of apparently great writers like Sean Fitz-Gerald. Sure, this got my attention enough to warrant a long, hastily written response. I guess that would be the defense by those wanting to defend The New York Times Company owned site. It is indeed attention - a response that shows how this piece sucks and it and The Athletic may not even be worth a penny.