By Dan Robson in Boston
By Dan Robson in Boston
Once one of the NHL's best power forwards, Kevin Stevens lost his career to a combination of injury and drug addiction. Now, he's fighting to stay clean and put the pieces of his life back together.

Kevin Stevens sat alone, staring at a locked door. His heart raced and sweat dripped down his face. He could hear the echoing shouts, cheers and curses of an inmate card game from another cell. The laughter twisted in his mind and made his stomach lurch. It was the sound of people who’d grown comfortable with misery, he thought.

Although he’d tumbled for more than two decades, Stevens never thought his fall would end like this. He’d climbed into the warmth of his own bed last night, beside the woman he loved, with their newborn son close in his crib. But in the dead of night, he was woken by a loud bang and a swarm of FBI agents, and led out of his condo in cuffs before sunrise. Hours later, in the back of a van with his arms and legs in shackles, he’d crossed the state line from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. The charges against him were federal — this was big.

The laughter kept gnawing at him. These were hardened criminals who’d accepted their fates, he thought. At six-foot-four and more than 300 pounds, Stevens hadn’t feared much in his 50 years, and he wasn’t afraid of them. But the sinking inside felt something like fear — and shame and panic and loneliness. He’d felt it before in doses, but never quite like this. Stevens had fallen so far, and for so long, that he had forgotten there was a bottom. Now he looked at the concrete of his prison cell, hoping that he had found it. He thought about his teenaged children reading the headlines and seeing his picture in the paper, again. He thought about his newborn, already without a father. He thought about his sisters and his mom and the worry they must be feeling not knowing how to help him. He thought about his dad, who’d believed in Stevens to his last breath. And he thought about the pills and a quarter century of addiction.

How did it come to this? he asked himself.

As a young man, Stevens had embodied the American Dream: The athletic son of blue-collar family from Pembroke — just south of Boston — who was the captain of every high-school varsity team, took a full-ride to an an elite college, and then became an Olympian and an NHL star. Stevens hoisted two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early ’90s, playing left wing beside Mario Lemieux. A big man who could pass and score, Stevens was heralded as one of the best power forwards in the game — and was rewarded with one of the NHL’s highest salaries.

But all of that ended after a horrific on-ice injury in which the bones of his forehead were crushed like potato chips, causing permanent damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. He was never the same player again, and the end of his NHL career was accompanied by a descent into addiction — both to party drugs, like cocaine, and opioids. For more than two decades, Stevens lived with a disease that took everything from him. But his arrest for dealing oxycodone in the spring of 2016 felt like bottoming out for good. Sitting in his cell, he prayed for one last chance to put the pieces of his life back together.

Stevens early life was an embodiment of the American Dream — a working-class kid playing his way to the big leagues. His injury, and the addiction that followed, brought him crashing back to earth.

As a toddler, Kevin Stevens learned to skate on the cranberry bogs behind his family’s small bungalow. As patriarch of the home that served as the nexus for all neighbourhood games, Stevens’s father, Arthur, was the natural caretaker of the makeshift rink at the end Jeanette Drive. “Artie,” as everyone knew him, was a bear of a mailman whose booming laugh was matched by an outsized sense of humour. He was locally famous for the joy he brought with each bundle of letters. A star athlete in his day, Artie had made it to the minors as a catcher in the Cincinnati Reds’ system. He married his high-school sweetheart, a local pageant queen named Patricia. They raised three kids — two girls and then a boy — in that bungalow at the end of Jeanette.

Artie shoveled and watered the ice each day, often with a cigar dangling from his lips. He’d set up the nets just as school was letting out, when the frozen bogs filled with kids on skates. Games carried on until it got too dark to see the puck and Patricia called her family in to warmth and dinner and The Brady Bunch. “It was like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Kelli Wilson, Stevens’s sister, recalls of her family’s time on Jeanette Drive.

While Artie cherished his two daughters — Kelli, the eldest, and Kim — he carried a special pride for his boy. By the time Stevens could walk, Artie had already taught him to catch, throw and hit. The boy would be good at every sport he played; Artie knew it. Even though he couldn’t skate himself, Artie also knew that hockey was an important sport in New England — and damned if his son wasn’t going to be great at that, too. Kevin had quickly taken to skating and soon he was shooting pucks on Artie, who played goal in his boots. As those shots grew harder and more accurate over the years, Artie stayed in goal, taking the bruises for his son.

According to local lore, in his first year of competitive ice hockey, six-year-old Kevin scored 175 goals. While he felt his best sport was baseball, he eventually drew the attention of Boston College in both baseball and hockey. He’d received invitations to try out for both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies, and before his first year in college, he was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Kings.

With a chance to go pro in either sport, Stevens hedged towards the safer bet, accepting a full ride to play hockey for Boston College. After graduating with a degree in economics — scoring 70 points in 39 games as a senior — Stevens was named to the 1987 U.S. national team and the 1988 Olympic team. Pembroke held a parade in honour of its favourite son ahead of the Calgary Games. “Good Luck Kevin” banners hung from street lamps around town.

Team USA didn’t fare well at the ’88 Games, but Stevens got to play alongside future pros like Tony Granato, Brian Leetch, Craig Janney and Mike Richter, and at 22 years old he had an NHL career waiting for him in Pittsburgh after the Penguins acquired his rights from the Kings. The Pens added him to their roster as part of a push to make the playoffs in a stacked Patrick Division. He scored his first NHL goal in his first game and tallied four more in 15 games before the year was out. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by one point.

“He developed into this beast who could skate, hit and shoot. He had all the tools to be the best left-winger for a few years in the NHL.”

In his first full NHL season two years later, Stevens put up 70 points on a line with John Cullen and Mark Recchi. A physical force on the ice — he racked-up 171 penalty minutes that first season — he was a friendly giant in the dressing room, filling the place with loud jokes in his thick New England accent. Artie was equally beloved by the players on the team, who noticed the similarities between Stevens and his father. “[Kevin’s] dad was just like him,” says Cullen. “He was a bundle of joy.”

Teammates started calling Stevens “Artie”, because father and son were so alike — and so similarly admired. Soon, everyone in the NHL knew Stevens by his father’s name. The younger “Artie” was as important to the team off the ice as he was on it, says Lemieux. “He was the party of the room every game,” Lemieux says. “He made it fun for everybody to come to the rink.”

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When he’d look back decades later, Stevens would consider those days in the early 1990s as the pinnacle of his life. He married his high-school sweetheart, Suzanne, in 1990; he was making about $150,000 a season at the time — a fortune to a kid from Pembroke; and his Penguins teammates became some of his closest friends. His first playoff appearance in 1991 played out like a fairytale. Pittsburgh beat the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins before meeting the Minnesota North Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. They won the series in six games. “It was the first for a lot of us, [and] a first for the city,” Stevens says. “As an athlete, as a hockey player, you work so hard to reach a certain point — and I got to experience the pinnacle.”

On that Stanley Cup run, Stevens racked up 17 goals and 33 points, finishing third in team scoring behind future-Hall of Famers Lemieux and Recchi. “He was one of the best, if not the best, power forwards for a few years,” says Lemieux. “He developed into this beast who could skate, hit and shoot. He had all the tools to be the best left-winger, which I think he was, for a few years in the NHL.”

The following season Lemieux missed 16 games with a back injury, and Stevens was crucial in keeping the Penguins’ hopes alive. He led the team with 54 goals and finished second in league scoring with 123 points (ahead of Wayne Gretzky and just behind Lemieux, who returned from injury to lead the league with 131). The Penguins made the playoffs and Stevens was again a force en route to a second-straight Stanley Cup. He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy, which he lost to Lemieux; he was a First-Team All Star. That off-season, he signed a contract worth $1.3-million per season. “Anything you’d want to have, I had,” Stevens says. “If you wanted to draw [the perfect] life up, it was mine.”

Just three full seasons into his NHL career, Stevens had fulfilled his American dream. And then, just as quickly, it was gone.

The 1991–92 season, the year before his injury, saw Stevens finish second in league scoring, sandwiched between Nos. 66 and 99 on the NHL leaderboard.

Stevens can’t remember the hit — not clearly, anyway. After knocking the New Jersey Devils out in the first round of the 1993 playoffs, the Penguins faced the New York Islanders in the Division Final. The Islanders were considered underdogs but, led by Pierre Turgeon, they’d pushed the Penguins to a seventh and deciding game in Pittsburgh.

Stevens remembers taking a penalty early in the first period and joining the play when that time expired. He remembers skating hard toward the Islanders’ corner. He caught Rich Pilon with booming check as the New York defenceman went to play the puck. Stevens came up under Pilon and their heads collided. Pilon flew backwards into the boards. Stevens was knocked unconscious on impact. He wasn’t able to brace himself as his enormous 230-pound frame fell forward. “His face smashed on the ice like an eggshell” says Glenn Healy, the former Islanders goalie, who was right beside the play. “It was like someone took a hammer and crushed his skull.”

Stevens’s nose was broken and twisted to the side. His orbital bone was busted, too. His forehead was completely shattered. He was carried off the ice on a stretcher and rushed to hospital, where a surgeon used nine metal plates to reconstruct his forehead. His nose was also rebuilt.

Bones could be repaired, but the brain was another problem. It was clear that Stevens had suffered trauma to his frontal lobe, but the effects of that damage were much less predictable. Doctors had serious concerns about the impact the injury would have on Stevens’s cognitive ability.

When his teammates visited a couple days later, Stevens’s head was swollen and had tubes running out of it. He remained in the hospital for more than a month, given large doses of painkillers to numb the agony. “It’s really unfortunate that after he got injured against the Islanders, his life went in a different direction,” says Lemieux. “He came out of it after a few months and resumed his career, but he was never the same.”

Dealt to the Rangers in 1997, Stevens was a shadow of his former self on the ice. But his charm and generosity still endeared him to teammates. "He was one of those guys nobody disliked," Gretzky told Sports Illustrated.

A thunderous knock on his door shook Kevin Stevens from the haze and he felt his body flood with panic. His crack pipe was tucked under a pillow on the bed in the room he’d rented at a Travelodge on the east side of St. Louis. It was nearly seven in the morning, but he’d been up all night.

Another knock, and a voice on the other side of the door: “Collinsville Police Department!”

“Who is it?” Stevens finally asked.

“Collinsville Police Department,” the voice repeated.

Stevens inched to the door and looked out the peep hole. “Collinsville Police Department,” the officer said a third time, knocking louder. Slowly, Stevens opened the door.

Surgery had repaired the sharp, handsome lines of his face, but Stevens had suffered unseen damage. He still managed to average a point per game in the 1993–94 season, and his return to the Penguins was heralded as a great comeback, but it was really the beginning of a long decline.

Stevens’s first encounter with drugs had come a couple months before his injury, when he snorted cocaine at a bar in Manhattan. He’d always point to that night as the beginning of his struggle with addiction, but the friends and family who supported him through the years say it was his injury and the heavy use of painkillers his recovery necessitated that started the spiral. Whatever the spark, Stevens says the urge to use consumed him. He tried to fight it only to feel it grow even stronger, and inevitably win. “It builds and builds and builds until something happens,” Stevens says. “If you don’t have a solution to fix it, it’s going to get you. That’s what addiction does. It’s not a kind thing.”

“It was like someone took a hammer and crushed his skull.”

Stevens tried to hide his drug use from teammates. On the road, he sneaked away from team outings to score drugs. “I’m hanging out in the worst places in town, doing things that those people do,” he remembers. “When you need to find things that are illegal, you go to illegal places.”

Sometimes he would search all night, then show up at the rink sleepless. He looked terrible and played worse. Teammates started to notice. They asked him what was going on, but he brushed off their concerns. In his mind, everything was fine. He was just having fun, enjoying his life. He didn’t even consider that he might have an addiction.

Off the ice, he stopped being “Artie” — the big, jovial bear from New England. He was tired and sullen. And he was diminished physically, too. An athlete who once had a choice of which sport to pursue professionally, was turning into a beer league old-timer. Friends and family noticed he’d become distant and preoccupied. When they heard he was missing games and practices, they knew something was up — but, Kelli says, they had no idea what.

Before the 1994–95 season, Stevens signed with his hometown Boston Bruins. It was supposed to be a fresh start, an opportunity to play the local hero, but he only lasted 40 games before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The addiction followed him west. He played out the rest of that season and all of the next in L.A., cashing in on a fading reputation. While with the Kings, Stevens was enrolled in the NHL’s substance abuse program for the first time, but his problems were kept under wraps — nothing came out publicly at the time.

After two disappointing seasons, the Kings dealt Stevens to the New York Rangers in 1997. He was 32 years old, losing his usefulness even as a role player, and still feeding the monster inside him. The Rangers intervened, and Stevens spent part of the summer of 1998 at a Los Angeles-area rehabilitation facility, where he reportedly received regular visits from teammate Wayne Gretzky. “I think the reason people were so drawn to Kevin is he would give the shirt off his back to anybody who needed anything,” Gretzky told Sports Illustrated in 2000. “A ride. Somebody to talk to. Kevin was always there. He was comfortable hanging with the captain or the young guys on a team. He was one of those guys nobody disliked.”

The following summer, Stevens found himself in rehab again. At a facility in Duxbury, Mass., he told Dr. Diana Ikeda, a psychologist who worked with NHL’s substance abuse program, that he’d had a problem with Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycodone since team doctors prescribed him the drug in the mid-1990s.

When the Collinsville PD entered Stevens’s motel room on the morning of Jan. 22, 2000, they were immediately intimidated by the size of the man. There were three officers on the scene. Still, if there was struggle, Stevens would be difficult to restrain. He was asked to sit on the bed. He did. “I’ll never hurt you,” he told them, apparently sensing their unease. “I’m not like that.”

At the station, Stevens told officers he’d been smoking crack on and off for the past eight years. “When you came in last night, I felt numb,” he said in his written statement to the police. “I’ve had problems with substance abuse in the past. I’ve already been through treatment. If the team finds out, I’ll lose my job … Although I’m nervous, I’m thinking clearly now.”

Stevens was charged with unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia and held in jail for three days. Meanwhile, reports of his arrest made public a secret he’d been trying to keep for nearly a decade. He knew the life he’d enjoyed was over. Back home, his pregnant wife and two young children would learn the news like everyone else. He felt ashamed for putting himself in the position he had — and for not recognizing the toll it would take on his friends and family. This has to be rock bottom, he thought. He vowed to himself to get the help he needed, and to follow through this time.

“I’m hanging out in the worst places in town, doing things that those people do. When you need to find things that are illegal, you go to illegal places.”

After the arrest, Stevens left the Rangers and went to rehab for a couple of months. When he got out, he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, but played only 23 games before being traded to Pittsburgh — now owned by a group headed by his old friend, Lemieux. Though he was back in the city where his NHL dream started, Stevens’s once-promising career limped to its end. He played 32 games for the Penguins, scoring one goal and adding four assists.

Stevens averaged 45 goals and 98 points in each of the four seasons before his face hit the ice. In the 10 seasons following his injury, he averaged just nine goals and 23 points.

“[Addiction] ruined my hockey career,” he says. “It didn’t ‘affect’ it, it ruined it.”

Stevens loved time spent with his kids, but admits that his drug use made him "a bad father." He'd forget to pick them up or show up high to their hockey games. “My heart broke for them,” says his sister, Kelli.

Stevens retired in a house overlooking the ocean in Duxbury and tried to settle into the routine of normal life. He focused on his kids, on being the best father he could, he says, but the pull of addiction still consumed him. “I stayed sober because I had to — so I was miserable,” he explains. “I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs, because I couldn’t. But there was no happiness, no solution in my life where I could live without drugs … Even though I wasn’t using it was still controlling my life.” He credits Suzanne with holding the family together and making sure the kids had some sense of support and normalcy. (The two separated in 2004 and divorced in 2010.)

About a year after retiring, Stevens hurt his neck while lifting weights. A friend gave him Percocet to deal with the pain. Despite Stevens’s struggle with painkillers through his career, he insists his real problem back then was with stimulants, like crack. Now, however, the Percocet to deal with his neck, quickly grew into a dependence on opioids — a physical pull greater than anything he’d ever felt before; as though he needed the pills to survive.

Stevens took opioids in any form he could get them. He bounced from doctor to doctor lying about injuries, trying to find one who would write him a prescription. When he did, he’d stick with that doctor until the well dried up. If he couldn’t access the pills legally, he’d resort to street dealers. Stevens says that during this period he needed about $500 worth of drugs a day just to get by. He believes he spent millions paying for his drug use. And he pawned everything of value he had, including both of his Stanley Cup rings. “If it wasn’t nailed down, he was going to sell it,” says Kelli.

“Addiction ruined my hockey career. It didn’t ‘affect’ it, it ruined it.”

Despite his struggles, Stevens found work in 2006 as an East Coast scout with the Penguins. He took pride in representing the organization that had given him his first opportunity in the game. He knew that if people remembered anything positive about him as a player, it likely happened while he was with Pittsburgh. For that reason, he always considered himself a Penguin. But just as in his playing days, he wasn’t able to put his addiction aside for the team — or for anyone.

As his growing kids excelled in sports, drugs kept Stevens at a distance. “It was hard for the kids, because they weren’t sure which Kevin was going to show up,” Kelli says. “My heart broke for [them].”

Sometimes Stevens would forget to pick them up from school or a practice, because he was out hunting for drugs. Other times, he’d show up to one of their hockey games noticeably high. He was asked to leave the arena more than once. “[Being a good dad] was no work for me when I was sober — I loved being a good dad,” Stevens says. “But when you’re in this addiction — you look back — I was a bad father, a bad husband, a bad son, a bad brother. All of those things, this thing takes from you.”

During times when he wasn’t using, the Penguins were impressed by Stevens’s natural eye for talent; he could see things in prospects that others couldn’t. His future as a scout seemed promising, says Ray Shero, Pittsburgh’s general manager at the time. But when Stevens was off, everybody knew — and he was off far too often.

On March 18, 2010, Stevens was invited to Shero’s suite at Boston’s TD Garden before the Penguins took the ice against the Bruins. Stevens wasn’t sure why Shero wanted to see him, but as soon as he walked in the door, it was clear. Along with the GM were two familiar faces — Dan Cronin and Dr. Brian Shaw from the NHL and NHLPA substance abuse program. Stevens gave a big hearty laugh. “Oh my gawd — you guys,” he said in his thick New England accent. “What are you doing here?”

“Kevin, you know why they’re here,” Shero answered. Lemieux had sent his private jet to fly Stevens to a rehabilitation facility in Florida, and Cullen and Recchi both called to speak with him. The “Option Line” wasn’t giving him any; he had to go get help. Stevens’s father and sister were there, too. “There wasn’t a mad bone in his body, it was just Kevin,” says Shero. “He was just like, ‘Oh man, you got me again…’”

Stevens admitted to his family and friends that he had a problem and agreed to give rehab another try. He stayed in the Florida program for less than 30 days before being kicked out for starting a relationship with a fellow patient. Shortly after that, the Penguins fired him.

Out of the game again, Stevens continued to fall. According to friends, he was usually unreachable by phone and he changed numbers often. He borrowed money from friends and family, promising to pay them back. Cullen, like many of Stevens’s closest friends, decided he had to cut Kevin out of his life if he refused to get help. They went years without speaking. “It came to a point where he had to realize it himself. He had to realize the responsibility was his own,” says Cullen, who’d also seen his brother struggle with addiction. “I just stopped reaching out to him.” Cullen continued to check on his old linemate from afar, through Kelli.

“We had to take a step back,” says Recchi, who’d sought advice from Theo Fleury about helping people with addiction. “That was probably the hardest thing as a friend, thinking everyday … that something bad happened, or he’s dead.”

“Promise me that you won’t give up on Kevin. Help him get better.”

In November 2011, Arthur Stevens was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Artie had watched his son spiral into addiction while trying to help him any way he could. There was nothing he could do. It broke his heart.

But despite the distance that had grown between him and his family, Stevens tried to be there for his dad in his illness. He’d offer to drive Artie to the hospital for appointments, but then he’d get sleepy at the wheel and drift into other lanes. Eventually Artie asked his son not to drive him anymore.

Five months after his diagnosis, it was clear that Artie wasn’t going to survive. In his last days, he held his daughter Kelli close and made one last request. “Promise me that you won’t give up on Kevin,” he said. “Help him get better. Promise me that.” She agreed.

Artie died that May.

Having averaged 44 goals and 96 points his first five full NHL seasons — including the one following his injury — Stevens was a different player in his final eight, averaging just 12 goals and 28 points.

On Dec. 16, 2014 — high on a mix of opioids and Ambien — Stevens fell asleep at the wheel and crashed headfirst into an oncoming vehicle. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. His head smashed into the windshield, shattering the glass. Pulled from the wreck and rushed to the hospital, he underwent emergency surgery. Several vertebral discs in his neck were broken, as was his collar bone, and he’d suffered another severe head injury.

Remarkably, the other driver walked away without serious injury and no charges were laid in the crash. Later, the surgeon who treated him would say Stevens was lucky he hadn’t been paralyzed or killed. He spent the next three weeks in intensive care, then two months in rehab.

The crash and his recovery offered Stevens a second chance at life, however symbolic, and several months later he got a new and compelling reason to take that chance when he found out that he and his long-time partner, Fallon, were going to have a baby boy. But Stevens never stopped using.

“My life was either going to go left or right, and I had to make a decision.”

That November, when Fallon was five months pregnant, Stevens arranged to pick up a package of illegally-obtained Oxycodone as part of a low-level drug dealing scheme. With the opioid epidemic in full force across North America — there were 1,574 confirmed opiod-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2015, a 20-percent increase over the previous year — federal investigators were working hard to the curb the drug trade. Stevens had discussed his plans, which also included selling his own prescription pills, in a wire-tapped phone conversation with a friend, Christopher Alonardo, who was implicated in a local FBI investigation into the drug trade. “You know you’re not gonna f—ing make 2,000 to 3,000 every time,” Stevens told his accomplice — but he “needed [to put] some money in the bank account.”

Recognizing Stevens was a notable public figure, especially in the local community where he was still revered as a sporting legend, the FBI believed they’d stumbled upon a useful collateral piece in the course of their investigation. When Stevens met a drug dealer at a bus station in Braintree, Mass., on Nov. 5, 2015, FBI agents were watching. He was handed a brown bag with 175 Oxycodone pills in it. After the exchange, he got in his truck and drove away. He was pulled over about a block down the road.

Stevens was allowed to go free, but for the next four months, agents checked in with him regularly, pushing him to work with them to implicate others in the drug trade. Stevens agreed, but never delivered. Instead, he dragged the agents along, giving them nothing of value. He says he didn’t grasp the consequences of his refusal to cooperate.

Fallon went into labour in March 2016. Stevens showed up to the hospital late. Kelli and his mother were already there. They saw that he was high. Kelli was incredulous. With a newborn child Stevens remained trapped in the cycle of his addiction. If there was any hope left for her brother, Kelli felt, it was fading fast.

Now clean for 19 months, Stevens attends regular AA meetings and has gotten back in the gym — working off 50 pounds in the process.

From his cell in Rhode Island, Stevens could hear the laughter of other inmates — the sound of people resigned to this hell. For years, he had avoided or endured the consequences of his addiction, but now he faced something that truly terrified him: more than a year in prison. He knew the image of him cuffed in track pants and a t-shirt would be plastered across Boston-area papers. His kids would see it and they’d have to endure the embarrassment, yet again. He couldn’t even call them to explain. Once again, he vowed to change. “My life was either going to go left or right, and I had to make a decision,” he says.

When bail was arranged and Stevens was allowed to walk out of the prison, his first stop was an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting with his long-time sponsor, Phil Barrineau. For the first time, he says, he meant it. He was set to face trial a year after his arrest. Any slip would put him back behind bars.

Back home, one of Stevens’s first calls was to Ron Hayes, a friend he’d met in AA way back in 2003. Hayes knew nothing about hockey, but the men had connected — even living together for a time. They had stumbled together, fallen together, helped each other back up. Ultimately, though, Hayes had gone one way — sobriety — and Stevens the other. “I need help,” an emotional Stevens told his friend. “I want to get what you have.”

Although he lived more than 30 miles away, for the next year, Hayes picked Stevens up every morning, so they could attend a 7 a.m. AA meeting at a neighbourhood church. Afterwards, they’d often head back to Hayes’s house on Great Heron Pond in Plymouth, Mass. They’d sit on the dock and talk about family, about leaving the past behind, about the future and all the hope it carried.

“I didn’t know I had a purpose for a long time. I think I have one now.”

With the help of Hayes and the rest of his close-knit group of friends at AA, Stevens stayed sober in the year before his trial. He’d had plenty of chances to turn his life around before, but ahead of the May trial date, Stevens’s friends and family submitted dozens of letters asking the court to give him one more. Each letter told the story of a much different man than the one who’d peddled Oxycodone for a quick payday. They told the story of Artie — the story of the big guy, with the booming laugh. They told the story of the guy who would do anything for a friend. And they told the story of a hockey player who was once the best power forward in the game. They spoke about the links between head trauma and addiction, and the likelihood that Stevens himself was never willing to mention: that his smashed skull and damaged brain played a direct role in the fragmentation of his life. “Kevin has acknowledged that he has made mistakes,” wrote Lemieux. “But his many loyal friends in hockey know that he is a good person who wants to make amends.”

Prosecutors weren’t buying any of the stories, though. In his final address to Judge George O’Toole, federal prosecutor Timothy Moran argued that Stevens admitted his crime wasn’t about addiction. This was about the decision to traffic a drug that was killing people in alarming numbers, Moran said.

Stevens’s attorney, Paul Kelly, the former head of the NHLPA, followed with an impassioned plea for leniency, and then Stevens himself rose and nervously addressed the judge. He apologized for his crime and for the pain he’d caused his family and friends. “I wish I could have had a great career and a great life, but I didn’t,” he said. “It hurt my family, it hurt my kids, it hurt my parents — it hurt everybody. And I paid a big price.”

Judge O’Toole gave Stevens a $10,000 fine and three years’ probation, with the condition that he be involved in public speaking and anti-drug educational efforts. The courtroom broke out in muffled cheers. That afternoon, Stevens walked out of the courthouse a free man. If this last arrest had finally been rock bottom, he thought, he’d been given another chance to pull himself back up. This time, he wasn’t going to let it slip away.

Stevens always considered himself a Penguin. Recognizing his exceptional eye for talent, the team gave him a second shot as an East Coast scout in 2017.

Kevin Stevens leaned back on the couch in the two-bedroom condo watching the opening ceremonies of Pittsburgh Penguins’ first home game of the 2017–18 season. Fallon, a Flordian who cares little for hockey, sat behind him at the kitchen counter studying for the psychology course she is taking in college. Hunter, nearly two now, was fast asleep in his crib.

On the television, the Penguins were raising the Stanley Cup banner in honour of the team’s second straight NHL title. Stevens was just a couple of months into his second stint as an East Coast scout with the franchise. He’d joined the team for part of training camp this fall, and they’d given him a new pair of skates so he could hit the ice again.

Every day he attended at least one AA meeting; two, if he was really feeling the itch. He headed to the gym, determined to shed the pounds he’d packed onto his enormous frame in retirement. He had managed to lose almost 50 so far, and was starting to see shades of his old self. Occasionally his routine included a visit with his parole officer and a random drug test.

When he wasn’t catching hockey games for the Penguins, he picked up extra work with an electrician buddy. He tried to speak regularly to his three older kids — two varsity collegiate athletes, and his youngest, who’s still high school. Luke, his eldest, is a six-foot-five forward at Yale and was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2015. The thought of his kids following his path — the good parts; the American Dream parts — was an enormous source of pride for him.

Stevens was 16 months sober. Even though he’d made it this far, he wasn’t taking the struggle for granted. Each day presented a new challenge and he faced them one-by-one. At meetings he shared the story of his long fall and brief rise often. He spoke about it at local high schools. He talked about it on a radio program about addiction that he co-hosts, Cross Check, and as part of a foundation he’d started called Power Forward, dedicated to raising awareness about addiction. “I didn’t know I had a purpose for a long time,” he says. “Whatever it is, I think I have one now. [Power Forward] gives me something to look forward to every day.”

On the television, the Penguins’ 2017 banner slowly reached the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. The camera panned across the bench and locked in on the smiling face of Stevens’s old teammate, Lemieux. “He still gets the loudest ovation,” Stevens said, laughing. “You don’t even have to say his name.”

The Penguins were back-to-back champions, again. Stevens leaned forward, taking in the moment — recalling a time when it was him standing on the blueline with his Pittsburgh teammates, celebrating twin titles of their own. He smiled. While still a long way from the wholeness of those glory days, he felt that — piece by piece — he was finally putting his life back together.

Photo Credits

Portraits by Webb Chappell
Additional photography: ALLSPORT; Jim Leary/Getty Images; Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Design by Drew Lesiuczok