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Stevens gives and gets respect

Jeff Carter laughs when someone asks whether John Stevens has a sense of humor, and if so, whether anyone has ever seen it.

Jeff Carter laughs when someone asks whether John Stevens has a sense of humor, and if so, whether anyone has ever seen it.

"He an intense guy," the 22-year-old center said of his head coach. "All business all the time. He jokes around when the time is right, but a lot of times at the rink, it's work and all business."

That perception is shared by the Flyers' veterans as well.

"He's pretty much a straight arrow," right winger Mike Knuble said. "This is his first year. He gets the team from the get-go, and he wants to assure it has his imprint on it. He's meticulous. Hitch [Ken Hitchcock] was like that, too."

Stevens' dry personality and stern manner are staples of his approach to hockey. Coming off last year's all-time worst finish as Hitchcock's replacement, there was little to smile about when watching game film over the summer.

So what has Stevens learned?

"Do you have three days?" he replied, cracking a rare joke. "Last year was obviously a very difficult year. It forces you to be a better coach every day and find a way to get your message across better. I don't lose sight of the big picture. You do what is right for the group and not get frustrated with adversity that comes your way."

Bill Barber won a Calder Cup championship with the Phantoms in 1998, when Stevens was his captain and anchored the defense. The two remain close friends.

"Johnny was a quality guy who always spoke with honesty," Barber recalled. "I needed a leader and he was there. He had a quality with young players to teach. They're like a sponge at that age. They absorb."

There is little doubt that Stevens has a terrific rapport with the younger Flyers, such as Carter and Mike Richards, who won a Calder Cup under Stevens in 2005. The younger players seem to have a genuine affection for Stevens.

Not so for Hitchcock. Some of them, including Richards, who was Hitchcock's whipping boy, objected to his constant "barking." Richards intimated last year that players turned a deaf ear to Hitchcock because he yelled at them without offering positive reinforcement.

"Hitch was more like an antagonist behind the bench," Knuble said. "He would prod a guy on the bench in front of everyone. Johnny will do it more subtly. He will pull you aside in the office or off the ice.

"That is good for a young player. Hitch always figured if you wear an NHL jersey, you can handle what he had to say. Not every player can."

Barber said the young players respected Stevens because he reciprocated that respect, regardless of their level of experience.

"Johnny teaches you more," Richards said. "He pulls you aside and says, 'This what you have to do.' People react a lot better to that than being yelled at and told what to do. That is where the respect factor comes in."

What Stevens enjoys most about teaching young players is not so much the fundamentals of hockey, but the intricacies of how individual play matters in building a team concept.

At the American Hockey League level, he said his job was primarily to prepare players for the NHL by giving them a well-rounded hockey education, based in part on his own experience as a player.

"He understands situations players get into," Richards said. "He's played the game. He draws upon his own experiences to help us."

Because he lacks years of NHL experience as a coach, Stevens can draw upon only what made him successful as a player and a coach at the minor-league level. Still . . .

"I learned a lot about the league last year," Stevens said. "That is going to make me a better coach at this level."

A coach who likely will be on a short leash for failure, if only because the Flyers can't afford (read: money) another season out of the playoffs.

"There is heightened expectations with our team," he said. "Any coach would welcome that. We worked hard in the preseason to get everything going in the right direction and build a team game. To me, it's all about building a team."