For ex-Penguin, a daily fight to stay clean, tell his story
PITTSBURGH (AP) — At the end of every month, Kelli Wilson counts the time her brother, former Penguin Kevin Stevens, has spent sharing his story — 24 years of drug abuse, followed by 21 months of sobriety — and fires off an email to his probation officer.
After pleading guilty in December 2016 to conspiring to sell oxycodone, Stevens was ordered as part of his May 2017 sentencing to give motivational speeches and raise awareness about the perils of prescription-drug abuse.
Requirements that were supposed to take Stevens three years were completed in nine months. Yet Wilson continues to tabulate the number of speaking engagements and click send, the document representing a sense of pride and hope for the future.
“I want to prove a point,” she said matter-of-factly over lunch last week.
It seems she’s hardly alone.
Once the National Hockey League’s pre-eminent power forward and later its cautionary tale, Stevens is in a much different place now: at long last sober, a partner in a nonprofit, a soon-to-be homeowner, the father of a 3-year-old boy and a burgeoning voice when it comes to combating the opioid epidemic.
This new life has taken Stevens, 52, into school libraries, auditoriums and homeless shelters, sharing his own story, listening to others and trying to persuade addicts to get help.
But unlike ex-athletes who hit the public-speaking circuit to try and make a buck, Stevens doesn’t collect a salary. What started as a court order has simply morphed into a way to live, stay sober and maybe assist others along the way.
“I feel good about it,” Stevens said. “If I can help a couple people or even if I can help one person . I guess I’m someone who can reach people someone else can’t because of what I did.”
Although he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell drugs, dealing was not habitual for Stevens. But taking drugs was.
Besides the speaking engagements — and how successful they have been — Stevens, Wilson and Andrew Bernstein have formed the Power Forward Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals and families dealing with addiction.
As part of the effort, Stevens also co-hosts a weekly radio show with Bernstein, the foundation’s executive director, that talks openly about the struggles addicts encounter.
The “infrastructure” of the operation, as Bernstein called it, has allowed Stevens to find his voice as an addiction counselor while simultaneously giving him a sense of purpose, something he admitted he lacked during more than two decades of drug abuse that cost him a pro hockey career, millions of dollars, a marriage and quality time with three of his kids.
For Stevens, it’s not so much about thinking big picture or trying to atone for past mistakes. It’s more about trying to survive and combat this disease.
“We all talk about one day at a time when you’re an addict,” Stevens said. “To live one day at a time is important. You don’t want to be overwhelmed with stuff and looking forward. You can’t look back. I’ve had a lot of negative things happen. If I look in that rearview mirror, there’s no way I’m going to be able to move forward.”
‘Now I’m up here talking’
This journey — Stevens uses that word often — started with a decision to try cocaine at a party in New York City back at age 28.
“It was a 30-second decision late at night,” Stevens said. “It activated this thing.”
Then came the gruesome hit with Rich Pilon of the New York Islanders in May 1993, but more so the violent collision that involved Stevens face and the ice.
Surgeons basically reconstructed Stevens’ face from scratch. With most of his facial bones shattered, they did repairs with metal plates. It was during this time that Stevens became hooked on prescription painkillers.
On the ice, Stevens’ production steadily declined. He was never again the player who averaged 47.5 goals per season from 1990-94. Stevens bottomed out while playing for the Rangers in 2000, when he was arrested and charged with felony cocaine possession after police said they found him smoking crack with a prostitute at a St. Louis-area hotel.
It was one of several low points for Stevens. It was also unimaginable when Stevens thinks back to his childhood in Pembroke, Mass., and listening to those stay-away-from-drugs talks.
“I was sitting in those seats saying, ‘It’s never going to be me.’ ” Stevens said. “Now I’m up here talking. It’s kind of a weird thing how it all happened, but honestly, I never thought, ever, ever, ever . I never knew anything about addiction.”
His message is unvarnished. As long as it’s not Christian-based or in a room filled with kids, Stevens doesn’t shy away from profanity. He speaks like a normal person, usually off the cuff, and relates many of his own experiences.
“Not preachy,” was how Wilson described it.
Stevens doesn’t just work in groups, either. It’s not uncommon for him to hand out his cell phone number and meet one-on-one with addicts at Dunkin’ Donuts over coffee.
“It’s about reaching out,” Stevens said. “Some people are at different stages. They want to get clean, or they just want to talk. I (BS) with them for a little. People did it to me. What they gave me to help me get clean and sober, you have to give it back. If someone needs help, you have to be there.”
‘Such a tremendous person’
Stevens has the NHL Center Ice television package at home, but there’s really only one team he watches.
“Pittsburgh has always been kind of a second home for me,” Stevens said. “It’s where I grew up. I love to see the Penguins do well.”
The feeling is mutual — from Penguins fans, sure, but nobody more so than co-owner Mario Lemieux or assistant coach Mark Recchi, two of Stevens’ closest friends who have never wavered in their support for the fan favorite more affectionately known as “Artie.”
“We know what he was like when he wasn’t addicted,” Recchi said. “We know what type of person he is. We knew that was controlling him. You always stick with a guy like that. He’s such a tremendous person and a wonderful teammate.”
After inviting Stevens to development camp last summer —Recchi’s idea — the Penguins hired him as a part-time scout in September. Stevens will be in Pittsburgh this week, taking part in Lemieux’s fantasy camp for the first time.
Losing his connection with the Penguins has bothered Stevens, although he readily admits it was his fault because of his continued drug use, which got him fired from his last scouting role — with the Penguins in the mid-2000s.
Now that he’s clean, getting to reconnect with so many good friends has been special, Stevens said.
“Addiction brings you down a path of isolation,” Stevens said. “You’re remorseful. You’re shameful. You don’t want to be seen by people you respect, but they’ve always been there for me.”
There remains one — really two — elusive piece of Stevens’ time in Pittsburgh, something Wilson hopes to help her brother fix: his Stanley Cup rings. Both were sold for drug money.
“I’m going to ask Mario someday if I could have them made, then pay for them, then someday maybe give them back to Kevin,” Wilson said. “I’d love to do that for him.”
A Pleasant Hills native, Bernstein is a lifelong sports fan — specifically a fan of all Pittsburgh teams. He keeps a Pirates cap with him in the small, rectangular studio where he and Stevens record “Crosscheck” and remains an avid listener of Pittsburgh sports talk radio.
After selling sponsorships for the Boston University hockey program, Bernstein said, he left to take a job at Boston Medical Center, which opened his eyes to the opioid crisis — specifically with how many hockey players were affected.
He connected with Stevens through the latter’s attorney, Paul Kelly, a former executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. And because of some substance-abuse issues in his own family, Bernstein wanted to partner with Stevens to tackle the issue, which led to the Power Forward Foundation.
“We thought it was something that had a double meaning,” Bernstein said. “It’s about taking your lumps in life and coming out on the other side.”
The group has had cursory talks with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation on how to best reach those affected. Through a friend of Wilson’s, the Power Forward Foundation procured the money needed to get things off the ground and has since attained nonprofit status.
The foundation is holding a program for inner-city kids May 17 at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Boston and has been having the same sort of talks with the Boston Bruins Foundation through chairman Bob Sweeney, Stevens’ roommate at Boston College.
The Power Forward Foundation’s ultimate goal is to build a treatment center geared toward athletes struggling with addiction. It also is planning a drug take-back day with local police chiefs.
The group has partnered with Familylinks to bring Stevens to Pittsburgh for a series of presentations. The launch event is a luncheon at PPG Paints Arena on April 3.
“We know there are so many other people out there who have stories, who can really make an impact,” Bernstein said.
Currently, Bernstein is working for free, as is Wilson. Stevens’ income is primarily gleaned through his role as a scout, deferred compensation from the Rangers and some part-time electrical work with one of his friends.
“He’s very sincere about this,” Bernstein said of Stevens. “It means a lot to him. It’s not about a cash grab.
“It’s very organic how it’s all come together.”
One day at a time
Stevens doesn’t consider himself a particularly religious person, but he said he wakes up every morning with a short prayer, asking God to help him get through the day, to stay positive and to give him the strength to stay sober.
“I never did that before,” Stevens said. “I never thought I needed it.
“This addiction thing . I’ve learned from people who have been sober longer than me to ask for help. It’s about having a higher power, someone you can go to.”
Stevens has been in and out of rehab for much of the past two decades. He spent six days in jail during his most recent conviction, but even that, he said, wasn’t enough.
Why, then, did he get and stay sober this time?
“I don’t know, probably because I had to,” Stevens said. “Jail, all that stuff, for addicts, that’s nothing. I’ve already put addiction in front of everything . my family, that’s the most important thing to me in the world. For me to go to jail is not a big deal.
“Why did I get sober this time? It just kind of happened. It worked. Then you get to a point where you feel good again. You have to give yourself time. After six, seven or eight months, I started to feel like I had a purpose again. I didn’t have that for a long time. I wanted to keep feeling that.”
Wilson has stayed by her brother’s side through all of the bad times, always believing this day would come.
“I would love him unconditionally and look beyond what I saw,” she said. “I’m looking into his soul and saying, ‘I know who this person is.’ ”
Stevens doesn’t sleep much. He shares an apartment with his girlfriend, Fallon, and he’s up with his young son Hunter most days at 6 a.m. He’s able to watch his oldest son, Luke, play hockey at Yale and is now present in all of his kids’ daily lives.
It’s a far cry from what Stevens used to do when he was using drugs. And a much, much better feeling.
“It’s good to get up, and there’s no anxiety,” he said. “When you’re in the middle of addiction, it’s hard. You need drugs. You don’t need ‘em to get high. You need ‘em just to live. People don’t realize that. You need ’em just to get through the day because if you don’t, you’re sick. That’s a bad feeling. The best feeling is to be free from that.
“The first 28 years of my life were great. I had a lot happen. But when I hit addiction, I got in this spiral. It’s been 24 years of a lot of ups and downs, a lot of pain for a lot of people and myself. It’s nice to be able to be accountable again and be the person that I wanted to be, and always wanted to be, but I couldn’t do it until I put this thing behind me. It’s nice to be that person and be accountable again.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com