The first thing John Stevens did when he was fired by the Kings was drive to Bakersfield.
It wasn’t because he needed a long trip to decompress. Stevens’ youngest son, Nolan, is a forward for the San Antonio Rampage, and Stevens made the drive to catch his game against the Bakersfield Condors. Nolan got two assists in a 3-2 loss, with his then unknown teammate Jordan Binnington in goal. But the loss was beside the point.
“Sunday morning [on Nov. 4, 2018], we jumped into the truck and saw Nolan play,” Stevens said. “The first thing we thought was family. You miss a lot of things with your family and your kids.”
Stevens spent the ensuing months doing what he hadn’t been able to do for years: be a normal parent and watch his sons play. All the while, he kept in touch with longtime friend Jim Montgomery, coach of the Dallas Stars.
The two would talk game-plans and matchups. It was an extension of a friendship that began in the 1990s when the two were teammates on the Calder Cup-winning Philadelphia Phantoms. And they will team up again with Stevens hired this week as an assistant under Montgomery.
Stevens noted the work ethic and character of Dallas general manager Jim Nill, and he likes the personnel of the Stars, who took the St. Louis Blues to double overtime of Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals and signed Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.
“We’ve always spent a lot of time together and on the phone talking hockey,” Stevens said. “We have enough respect for each other that we can push each other, even if we don’t agree.”
Stevens’ new endeavor effectively turns the page on his nine-year stay with the Kings, first as an assistant coach and for 95 games as head coach. He was fired by general manager Rob Blake just 13 games into last season, after a win against the Columbus Blue Jackets brought them to 4-8-1. Stevens doesn’t retain any negativity toward the organization.
“First of all, I know the business, and we didn’t get off to a good start,” Stevens said. “The fact that Brownie [Dustin Brown] wasn’t there and we were trying to integrate new people [made it difficult] … the organization has a decision to make. You’d like to see some patience, but you get into the business, you know what you signed up for.”
Stevens said he has “no regrets” with his time with the Kings. His players reached out to him after the firing and Stevens remembers a conversation with then-Kings winger Tanner Pearson.
“I told him, ‘I didn’t fear getting fired,’ ” Stevens said. “I feared not being able to help Tanner Pearson get going.”
Shortly after his dismissal, Stevens publicly thanked the Kings organization and he praised it again when reached Wednesday from his home in Sea Isle City, N.J. Some of the leaders he coached, though, have said they thought he would be given more time.
“I was a little bit surprised, because 13 games, it’s quite early, and I remember we played against Columbus and we won that game, so it caught me a little bit off guard,” Anze Kopitar said at the end of the season. “I can see why Blakey had to react. Was it too early? Maybe, but who am I to say what would happen if it didn’t change and what would have been if Johnny was still sitting here?”
The Kings never got a lift with interim coach Willie Desjardins, which further threw Stevens’ firing under scrutiny. Brown noticed one marked change when asked why their special teams never got on track.
“[Penalty kill] is more of a mind-set, and I think things changed when we let Johnny go,” Brown said. “I might be wrong, but I think we were a top-five PK on Nov. 4, and then we dropped drastically. I think we changed a few things. I think we became less aggressive on the PK.”
That was a big part of Stevens’ role with the Kings, in addition to his work with the defensemen. That will change with Dallas. Stevens is in charge of five-on-five pre-scouting and five-on-five offense. He will be able to give a detailed scouting report on the Kings for that first matchup on Jan. 9.
Normally, Stevens can detach himself from the emotion of it. But he admitted this will be different.
“I’ve never wanted to make it about me, but certainly having spent that much there, it would mean a lot,” he said.