November 23, 2009

Stevens sharp on, off ice

Christian Stevens

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

He may not be a rocket scientist, but someday, hopefully after a professional hockey career, Christian Stevens will be a chemical engineer.

No, Stevens is not at an Ivy League school, RPI or Michigan Tech. He is an 18-year-old, second-year defenseman for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.

With a perception that it’s all hockey all the time, Canadian major junior hockey has tried to promote itself among American players by stressing its educational packages, but landing a student-athlete the caliber of the York, Maine, resident has to exceed even their own expectations.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Stevens is a steady, physical, stay-at-home defenseman who has caught the eye of scouts as a potential NHL draft pick this spring. He had two goals and eight points in 54 games as a rookie last year while fighting through injuries. This season, through mid-October, he had one assist in eight games to go with a plus-3 rating – and Kitchener was the last team in the OHL without a loss in regulation.

“He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” said Kitchener assistant coach Troy Smith. “He is a solid, safe defenseman who competes every night. He plays real physical, but he is a smart player who keeps it simple.”

Raising Stevens’ profile is his pairing on the blue line with John Moore, the former Chicago Steel defenseman drafted 21st overall by Columbus in June. Moore stayed with the Blue Jackets until the final week of the preseason.

“He is a pretty amazing player to play with,” Stevens said. “I’m playing beside a guy who is going to be looked at every single night. I’ve talked to a few scouts here and there. It would be nice to be drafted, but if not, it works out either way. I can pick which training camp to go to.”

Many junior players, both American and Canadian, if they have finished high school, may take a course at a community college or an online course. Players in the States are often waiting to matriculate in college while players in Canada are usually focused on hockey, and normally attend to studies in the offseason or post-hockey.

Stevens decided to play for Kitchener only after he was accepted at the University of Waterloo, often referred to as the MIT of Canada, and with the Rangers’ understanding that he would be devoting significant time to some significant studies. As a condition for playing for the Rangers, Stevens and his family also secured a full four-year college scholarship from Kitchener to use when he wishes.

Currently, Stevens is taking microbiology, physics and an advanced mathematics course.

“I’ve never had a kid that intelligent,” said Smith. “I’ve never met anyone that intelligent outside of hockey.”

“It’s not too much to handle,” Stevens said, “because two of the classes, I took part of it before the season started. It sounds a lot harder than it really is. I don’t have to always go to class; the homework is online and the lectures are online. It sounds like I’m working harder than I really am, although it sounds cool.”

In fact, Stevens said his daily routine pales in comparison to his two years at Phillips Exeter Academy.

At Exeter, Stevens attended a full day of classes, participated in a sport after school each season and then did a full load of homework and studying. Now, he has “tons of free time,” compared to Exeter even though he’s balancing college studies with a 68-game regular season, practice and training.

Originally from Seattle, Stevens and his family moved to Michigan when he was 10 and he played on some Honeybaked teams. He went to Minnesota for a year, where he captained Shattuck-St. Mary’s bantam team before coming to Exeter. He was eligible for the OHL draft in 2007 because his family was living in Michigan and Kitchener took him in the 9th round. His family moved to Maine shortly after.

New England had an influence on Stevens long before he came to Exeter. No one in his family, which hailed from the Pacific Northwest, had ever played hockey. It was Stevens’ father’s best friend from the Army, a guy from South Boston he only remembers as “Woody,” who introduced him to the game.

Woody lived with the Stevens family for a while in Seattle, and would take father and son to watch the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. While Stevens played other sports, it was then that he started to like the speed of hockey and developed a passion to play it.

Despite the early exposure to major junior, Stevens said he had expected to go the NCAA route all along until a few weeks before he signed with Kitchener. Once he was accepted at Waterloo, had a commitment that college was paid for and considered the OHL’s track record of sending players to the pros, he figured, “Why not take a shot?”

“He hasn’t disappointed us,” Smith said.

Bill Keefe can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.