Fans of the Barrie Colts know Peter Stevens as the big, bad bruiser, an Evander Holyfield on skates. What the OHL team's followers might be surprised by is the forward's professional aspirations for life after hockey.
"I actually want to be a nurse," said Stevens, sporting a swollen set of knuckles on his right hand, a souvenir courtesy a fight in a game last weekend against Niagara. "I like helping people, so that's what I want to do when hockey's over with."
A relentless brawler on the ice, a cozy teddy bear off it: that's Stevens in a nutshell.
Of course, just about everything about the tattooed toughguy -- he has six, including one on his shoulder in honour of a friend who committed suicide -- is a contradiction. Everything but his genuine love for a sport he yearned to be a part for as long as he can remember, that is.
"My mom tells the story all the time," Stevens explained. "When I was young, I coloured everything in black. She didn't know what to do. She thought it was sort of like a learning disability, and the doctor said I could be sad. Eventually, when I started speaking, I said it was because it was the colour of a puck."
And so began the scrapper's journey into a sport his family was unfamiliar with, one that continues to evolve for the undrafted forward who turns 20 on Tuesday. Growing up in the modest bordertown of Chester, N. Y., located about a half-hour from Manhattan and sandwiched between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, hockey was pretty far off the radar.
Stevens' father, also named Peter, was a local basketball star in his day -- he received a scholarship to play for Temple University, but pursued the family life, instead. In a state fascinated by basketball and football more than anything else, Stevens played roller-hockey, as well as some hoops, but not hockey.
Yet hockey always had his heart.
"The only thing I cared about as a kid was playing hockey," said Stevens, in his third OHL season. "I didn't start skating until I was 11, but I'd go outside and shoot the puck against the garage door all day long. My mom said the neighbours hated us, because I'd just sit there and shoot, shoot, shoot, all day long.
"I don't know what it was about hockey, but every night I'd sit there and watch the Rangers play, or the Devils play," Stevens added. "Any hockey game that was on, I'd be watching it."
Soon he was playing it, and after being cut by more minor hockey teams he cares to remember, he made his way to Ontario, suiting up for the Tier II Pembroke Lumber Kings before eventually getting the call from the Kingston Frontenacs.
After spending two full seasons in Kingston, Stevens has found a new home in Barrie this season, and he's quickly winning over Colts Country with his gritty forecheck and superb uppercut. Perhaps not since former Colts toughguy Luch Nasato racked up more than 600 penalty minutes in his three seasons in Barrie has the team has such a bona fide enforcer.
Stevens hasn't always gone to his fists to settle a score.
"I was very soft growing up. I was never in fights in school," said the former New Jersey Jr. Devil, who has alternated between forward and defence throughout his career. "But, eventually, I started hitting guys ... I know I'm not going to score 30 goals, so you've got to go with what you're good at, and I enjoy that role. I enjoy creating space for guys, and I enjoy getting in guys' heads, decking guys."
What Stevens also enjoys, and what earned him the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy last season as the OHL's humanitarian of the year, is giving back to the community.
In Kingston, he spent more than 200 hours in 2007 visiting hospitals, speaking to students and volunteering for numerous charity events. He's kept it up in Barrie, visiting Royal Victoria Hospital, schools and, generally, raising his hand the moment a community event is mentioned.
"You don't have to ask him," said Andrew Wells, the Colts media relations co-ordinator. "The other day, he was at Shear Park (for a skating event with youngsters) at 6 a. m.
"He wanted to go."
Stevens said he simply enjoys getting to know the people in the community he's living in.
"My dad always says you've got to get out and interact with the people who cheer you on every night, and I just like being around the people who really do care and show their support," the 219-pound grinder said. "I really enjoy going to hospitals and visiting with kids who are sick or have disabilities, because they appreciate it, and it's nice to be able to help them in any way.
"And I like going into classrooms. I just like when you see the kids and how excited they get. It's good to be a positive role model in any way."
Being a role model to youngsters does get challenging for a hockey player whose bread and butter is fighting.
"It's tough when I go into a school and I have black eyes, a broken nose, cuts and everything else. The kids are terrified of me, and they like to ask about it," Stevens said. "I just say, 'When you get older and play in the OHL, you can fight as much as you want, but it's not important, and it's not going to get you anywhere.' (Fighting) has no place in anything except for hockey, where the rules allow it."
For a young athlete who isn't old enough to drink alcohol in some states, Stevens seems to conduct himself well beyond his years. His level of maturity hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates, who know him as a vicious enforcer who loves to land punches on opponents, but a kind-hearted person in every other environment.
"I think he's a big softy, to tell you the truth," said veteran Colts defenceman Kyle van de Bospoort, who shares the same billets as Stevens. "He puts on a tough face when he comes to the rink, but when he goes home, he's pretty laid back. He's just a nice guy to be around."
Josh Brittain came over in the same December trade with Stevens. The two have known each other for three years.
"He's a guy who's a tough kid, and at the same time, he's a very good and kind person," Brittain said. "He's someone I look up to. He definitely has a softer side ... that's not a bad thing.
"He was a well-known character in Kingston. Everyone kind of viewed him as a role model," the forward added. "He's definitely a guy who's well respected in the community, and for good reason."
Stevens, who has sported wacky hairdos and, up until recently, a moustache, admits he's a teddy bear, but not always.
"(It) depends if you get me before a coffee in the morning or not," he said. "I try to leave the fighting to on the ice, and I just try to enjoy every day here as much as I can."
- - -
I was very soft growing up. I
was never in fights in school.
Peter Stevens, Colts forward