Written by Tom Borrelli for Lacrosse Magazine
Neil Stevens contends that lacrosse helped him land his first newspaper job. Some 40 years later, he has more than paid it back.
Stevens, who will retire from the Canadian Press as a full-timer next month, has an important engagement before that day arrives. On Feb. 28, he will be recognized by the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame for his media contributions.
Two nights later, he'll cover his final NLL assignment - as a full-timer, at least - when the Toronto Rock hosts the Calgary Roughnecks at the Air Canada Centre.
"He can retire knowing he's done everything he could to put our game on the map," said Rock captain Jim Veltman, who is also retiring as a player at the end of this season. "He's made people aware of the special talents these guys have and what's been going on all these years at the local arenas. We need more people like him to help our game grow."
Stevens has covered eight different Olympic Games, figure skating at the world and national championship levels and Toronto Maple Leafs hockey. But his passion for lacrosse is home-grown, and began as a youngster in Port Dalhousie, Ontario, just northwest of St. Catharines, one of the box game's true hotbeds.
"I grew up a block away from a lacrosse bowl," said Stevens, 60, who joined the CP in 1974. "When I was 5, my dad registered me to play lacrosse on a dirt floor, with chicken wire fences and permanently embedded goal posts. I spent an awful lot of time in there."
Stevens, who was a center, got to the Ontario finals with his midget team at the age of 16. In the second game of a best-of-three finals, however, he was KO'ed by an injury.
"I got hit from behind by Frenchy Henderson and broke my collarbone along the side boards," said Stevens. "Somehow my teammates won the third game without me. In the picture, I was the kid with his arm in a sling."
Stevens was an Ontario Lacrosse Association All-Star during one of his three junior seasons with the St. Catharines Lakesides. He frowns, remembering taking faceoffs against Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer Gaylord Powless.
"I never won one," he said.
In 1969, Stevens played professionally for the St. Catharines Golden Hawks, earning $20 per game and performing alongside former Buffalo Bandits head coach Bob "Buff" McCready, Ron Roy, the first coach of the Columbus Landsharks, and ex-Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Doug Favell.
"I didn't play much toward the end of that season," Stevens said. "Because we brought up a hot shot named Rick Dudley who got into the games instead of me."
Dudley, now the assistant general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, spent 10 seasons in the NHL and WHA, and was the head coach of both the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. But many contend he was a better lacrosse player. In 1974, Dudley played for the Rochester Griffins of the original NLL and, despite missing 12 games at the start of the season because of the NHL playoffs, still finished sixth in the league in scoring and was a first-team All-Star.
While still a student at Niagara College in Welland, Ontario, Stevens began searching for a newspaper job. He got a call from the Peterborough Examiner, where he went on to spend two years.
"The sports editor recognized me from the games he had covered," Stevens said. "So he gave me a job, my first in the business. I was still playing lacrosse and tried out for the [OLA's Peterborough] Lakers. I would have made the team, but I was working split shifts and couldn't put in the time commitment. So I was 23 when I stopped playing."
Stevens has been all over the world, but his first road trip as a newspaperman was to New Westminster, British Columbia, to cover the 1971 Minto Cup, awarded annually to the champion junior men's lacrosse team of Canada. That year, the Richmond Roadrunners defeated the Peterborough PCO's, whose roster included John Grant Sr., the father of the Rochester Knighthawks' star forward of the same name.
After two years at the Sudbury Star, Stevens joined the CP. He finally got the chance to cover pro indoor lacrosse when the NLL expanded into Canada in 1998 with the creation of the Ontario Raiders, who played one season at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum before moving to Maple Leaf Gardens and becoming the Toronto Rock.
"We never covered lacrosse at the Canadian Press," Stevens recalled. "But when the NLL got here, I went to the sports editor [Neil Davidson] and told him we should start covering it. He said I could, and I was the only guy covering it from Toronto at the time. We were always big into doing things that other people weren't doing."
Of Stevens, Davidson said, "Neil's love for lacrosse shows daily. I believe he has long led the country in lacrosse coverage and has helped expose the sport to thousands of readers."
What makes covering the NLL so enjoyable for Stevens?
"It's meeting the great guys who play and run the sport," said the Brampton, Ontario, resident. "They're exceptional guys who are so down to earth. It's been a privilege to meet people like Veltman and [Rock forward] Blaine Manning. I just loved [late Rock head coach] Les Bartley. There's something so unique about the way this is a blue-collar sport, and I hope it always stays that way."
Stevens, who will also cover his final NHL game Thursday night when the Sabres play the Leafs in Toronto, has seen his share of great NLL teams and performers.
"Regardless of the sport, I do try not to cheer for people," he said. "But one of the guys I really enjoy watching is [San Jose forward] Colin Doyle. I think the punishment he takes to get to the net is really something. I enjoy seeing the work he puts in to score all those goals. I think he's a great player.
"I love watching [the Rock's] Bob Watson play goal. Seeing [NLL career scoring leader and Bandits forward] John Tavares and his shot, picking the top corners, has been a wonderful thing to watch.
"I also have a lot of appreciation for guys who aren't necessarily big scorers. Gavin Prout is such a great playmaker for Colorado and [Rock defenseman] Dan Ladouceur is a great guy in the trenches who's been there since day one."
Just like Stevens, himself.
"Any time anybody like Neil is writing about lacrosse, it's great for the game," said Tavares, a Toronto native and high school teacher in suburban Mississauga. "Lacrosse is still, even in Canada, one of the best-kept secrets."
Other than occupying his seat in the Foster Hewitt Media Gondola at the ACC, Stevens' plans for the future include spending more time with his four grandchildren. The oldest is 5, and another is on the way.
"I grew up with lacrosse; it's not just something I cover," Stevens said. "It's always been much more than that for me; it's always been a big part of my life."
Just as he is to the lacrosse fans of Canada.