His close friends rarely call him Kevin. To them, he'll always be Artie, the guy they prefer to remember as the ever-smiling and gregarious kid from Pembroke who starred at Boston College, wore USA colors in the 1988 Olympics, and became the National Hockey League's premier left winger in the early '90s.
No one ever tired of that lovable, successful, embraceable Artie, his personality as abundant and strong as his strapping 6-foot-3-inch frame.
"Built like Tarzan,'' Ray Shero, once his boss in Pittsburgh, recalled the other day. "Not a better guy around. Everyone still knows that . . . even with all that's happened.''
But now, after decades of substance abuse, addiction, and his sometimes-reckless behavior, the onetime pride of Silver Lake High School and ex-NHL All-Star is federal court case CR-16:10131, the United States vs. Kevin Stevens.
Artie is 51 years old, beaten up, with an ex-wife and three kids to support. He is also the father of an infant child by his current girlfriend, and staring at the prospect of a jail sentence for his alleged dalliances with opioids. Lovable Artie is in a world of pain and trouble.
His friends, loathe to give up on him, say they have come to realize that it's up to Stevens now to take charge of his health, while at the same time they worry he may be buried too deep in years of denial, incapable of accepting help, unable to surrender to the demons of addictive painkillers. They wonder if he can fight.
Even more starkly, some fear he will die.
"Yeah, it's scary, because we talk as friends all the time, 'Hey, how's Artie . . . have you seen him . . . is Artie OK?' '' said ex-Bruin Mark Recchi, who was a Stevens teammate in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "We're so scared that we are going to wake up one day and something bad has happened. That's the scary part. That's the sad part.''
"In some ways, when you look at all of it,'' added NBC commentator Keith Jones, a Stevens pal and briefly a teammate with the Flyers, "it is remarkable he is still alive.''
The door of his South Shore apartment knocked down by members of federal law enforcement earlier this month, Stevens was arrested and indicted on two charges of oxycodone, both for possession of and the intent to distribute the highly addictive opioid. Since released from jail, pending presentation of the government's case and the potential of a trial, Stevens spent five nights in federal custody, allotted but one hour a day to leave his cell and stretch his massive, bloated frame that has ballooned to around 300 pounds, some 75 over his playing weight.
Early next month, Stevens and his attorney, former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly, will be presented with the government's case against the onetime Bruins winger. The next courtroom phase of his case is scheduled to take place June 21, 10 a.m., before magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein at the Moakley Courthouse. If the case proceeds to trial, it is scheduled to be heard by Judge George O'Toole, who presided over the Marathon bombing case.
According to Kelly, Stevens has been addicted to painkillers for more than 20 years, dating to a ghastly on-ice accident in 1993 when many of his facial bones were crushed. Surgeons had to peel down his face, mend the shattered pieces with multiple plates. It was the painkillers Stevens took during recovery, contends Kelly, that triggered his addiction.
Stevens, his short-cropped black hair flecked with gray, appeared in court on May 17 and pleaded not guilty to both charges, with his weeping mother and sister among a sparse clutch of people in the gallery. The co-defendant in the case, Christopher Alonardo, of Medford, also pleaded not guilty
According to Kelly, Stevens was in possession of 100 pills, presumably oxycodone, when arrested. Such a small number, Kelly noted prior to Stevens's detention hearing, would not typically trigger an indictment or for the feds to hold the accused in jail. A former federal prosecutor himself, Kelly conjectured at the time that the government might only be attempting to send his client a message, but also noted that the charges leave Stevens "with some sentencing exposure.''
Grip of addiction
The Stevens case, in so many ways, is another classic example of the rabbit hole that leads to the hell of addiction, one that ex-Durfee High School star Chris Herren knows all too well. A dazzling point guard, Herren started down the road to addiction with alcohol as a teenager, the hold growing stronger, his choice of drugs more varied and destructive, during his stays at BC and Fresno State.
An opioid addiction destroyed Herren's career and nearly took his life, until he finally overcame the disease in his early 30s. The trick: an 11-month rehabilitation stay. He said it saved his marriage, his family, his life.
"At the end of the day, for Kevin Stevens,'' offered Herren, now 40, noting that he doesn't know Stevens, "the charges that he is facing are irrelevant. He is punishing himself much more than anyone else can punish him.''
Ultimately, said Herren, all addicts have a choice: stay in the grip of disease, get help, or . . .
"You die in this game,'' he said. "And if you don't die, you live a horrible existence. To think you wake up every day with the feeling you are chasing death. There is nothing normal about that. I mean, those pills kill you. Heroin kills you. Oxycontin kills you. It is a long, dark road.''
All of which Stevens's family and some of his dearest pals impressed upon him the day of his big intervention, March 18, 2010, in Shero's suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Then the Penguins' general manager, Shero was Stevens's boss for a few years, the retired star a scout for the very team he twice won the Stanley Cup with in the early '90s. In his playing heyday, Stevens made more than $3 million a year, some in the form of deferred earnings that continue to this day.
"Let me tell you, he had a good eye for scouting,'' said Shero, who today is the Devils' general manager. "He was spot-on with his read on a lot of players.''
But with family and friends — including the likes of superstar Mario Lemieux, ex-Penguin John Cullen, Recchi, and more — concerned for Stevens's health and well-being, the intervention was planned. Shero called him to his suite.
"I remember it exactly, exactly,'' said Shero, confirming events also detailed by Recchi, who was then playing for the Bruins. "He entered the room, big smile, 'Hey, Ray, what's up?' ''
The door closed, said Shero, and Stevens quickly spotted two doctors from the substance abuse program that is co-managed by the NHL and its players' union. It was not their first meeting with the former star. Initially reluctant to accept intervention, it was made clear to Stevens that he had no choice in the matter, he was going to rehab. His sister and father were there to add support, underscore the urgency they all felt.
A Penguins spokesperson confirmed Thursday that Lemieux that day provided the private jet that waited for Stevens at Hanscom Field in Bedford. In short order, he was on his way to a Florida rehab, family and friends prayerful he was on the road to recovery.
"But he was out 10 days later, so you know, he didn't want the help,'' said a somber Recchi. "It didn't last very long. That was kind of the end, people realizing he's got to want to help himself. Artie is an amazing person with an amazing personality. And it's amazing how this stuff, once it gets you, is so strong.''
Support or enabling?
Derek Sanderson, addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine in his playing days, recalled the other day that he was in detox 13 times, sometimes for up to nearly two weeks, before beating his addictions. Now about to turn 70 ("Mind you, I didn't think I would see a day past 40.''), he said he has been clean since 1980.
"If you really love someone, then you can never give up on them,'' said Sanderson. "But I know how hard it is to hang in there. People who love you see you slip and say, 'Well, you must not think much of me, because obviously you're not getting it.' Sad, but true.''
Another former local hockey standout, Chris Nilan, who won a Cup with the Canadiens, has been down the road to addiction, too. He's also been at Stevens's side, noting how he sat in a hospital room a couple of years ago after Stevens was in a bad car crash, breaking his pelvis and refracturing a portion of his face. Pills Stevens used to cope with the pain of that accident, said Kelly, again sent Stevens into the addiction spiral.
"Listen, I have struggled with addiction, with alcoholism . . . I know what it is to struggle,'' said Nilan, who credits a three-month stay in an Oregon rehab facility with setting him straight. "And I don't sit in judgment of Kevin, that is for sure.''
Yet Nilan, like a number of Stevens's pals, is now convinced it's up to him to do the work. Recchi, for one, has worried the support is a form of enabling, allowing his decades-long friend to stay on drugs with the knowledge someone is always there with a helping hand. It is a difficult, awkward place, knowing that to reach out could be interpreted as license to continue destructive behavior. Some of those who want to hold him closest feel forced to let him go.
"Who doesn't love Kevin?'' said Nilan, the caring and frustration of equal measure in his voice. "But it's time for Kevin to love himself. That's the bottom line. Kevin's got to love himself enough now to go get help. Because right how it looks like he doesn't care, like he's given up. I know how sad that is to watch. But again, it has to come from him.''
For now, Kevin and Artie, inseparable and interchangeable, remain in a bad place. Caught in the courts. Caught in addiction. With no easy way out.