One of the most remarkable aspects of Denis Potvin’s smashing of Bobby Orr’s record of most points by a defenseman is rooted in a statement that the Islanders’ Hall of Fame backliner made nine years before the landmark event.
In 1976, an international tournament called the Canada Cup included the world’s best players skating for their respective national teams. Among those included on Team Canada was Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr, considered by many to be the greatest D-man of all-time.
Still in his prime, Orr owned a pair of Stanley Cup rings and was to enhance his stature even more by being named the Canadian team’s most valuable player. Potvin, who was Orr’s teammate on Team Canada, startled the hockey world by asserting that Orr had taken the MVP title only because of “sentimentality.”
What’s more, Potvin went a step farther, authoring an article in a major Canadian magazine under the title, “I’m Better Than Bobby Orr.”
The reverberations it caused through the National Hockey League only served to delight Potvin who loved the limelight and eventually would “write” his own autobiography, “Power on Ice.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Denis and I were good friends right from his rookie year. I ghosted his book, “Power On Ice” right after the Canada Cup episode and I can assure you that Potvin considered himself at least as good as Orr. And Denis wasn’t even in his prime then. “Orr does things that I don’t do and I do things that Bobby doesn’t do.” Potvin was right. He played a much He played a much more physical game than Orr and was defensively more dependable. Potvin also wrote one more book than Bobby! Or, as Sports Illustrated noted, “Potvin is a rarity among hockey players in that he speaks in polysyllables, enjoys art and theater and does not limit his reading to centerfolds.” Surprisingly, Potvin and Orr wound up being good buddies.)
Nevertheless, the anger of Boston fans stirred by Potvin’s quasi-put-down of Orr was small potatoes compared with the super-intense manner in which Rangers fans reacted to the Islanders Hall of Famer.
The hatred — and it was nothing less — has been generated for years ever since Potvin’s team upset the Rangers in the 1975 playoffs. But it reached a peak on Feb. 25, 1979 at The Garden.
During a typically intense battle Potvin delivered a thudding bodycheck to Ulf Nilsson, the lithe Swedish forward who — with his Swedish compatriot Anders Hedberg — provided a one-two punch to the Blueshirts’ offense.
Nilsson’s leg was severely damaged and the blow essentially ended his NHL career. Not surprisingly Rangers fans accused Potvin of deliberately injuring their ace. The next time the Isles visited The Garden, Potvin was greeted with chorus after chorus of POTVIN SUCKS!
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Nilsson eventually exonerated Potvin from any guilt, calling the hit a legitimate check. If anything it was a borderline blast from a competitor whose intensity was similar to that of Gordie Howe and Mark Messier, each of whom were known to be less than delicate with the foe. Considering the Islanders-Rangers rivalry at that point — and the fact that I was working the Isles telecasts — I considered the fans criticism of Potvin perfectly normal but Denis was not guilty.)
What was so astonishing was that the one-game verbal scathing of Potvin became a ritual every time he skated on Garden ice. And if that didn’t strain credulity, the POTVIN SUCKS mantra continued long after Denis retired in 1988 and it’s uttered at least a few times during every single home game.
Even the staid New York Times took due note of the razzing. “To this day,” wrote Fred Bierman, “fans of the archrival Rangers utter his name more frequently and with greater fervor than those who cheered his checks and slapshots.”
Potvin: “It’s quite amazing that they’re still doing it. The whole thing has taken a life of its own.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Very craftily, Denis has managed to conceal any hurt feelings over the endless slurs. On visits to MSG as a television commentator for the Florida Panthers and later the Ottawa Senators, he has kidded Rangers fans who’ve needled him. “You guys aren’t listening carefully,” Potvin likes to joke.” What they’re saying is ‘POTVIN’S CUPS, POTVIN’S CUPS.’ That’s for all four that I won.”)
Explaining the chant’s durability has challenged many observers of New York fandom. The Times’ man, Bierman, put it this way: “As time has passed the chant has increasingly less to do with Potvin the player or the person. Instead, it has turned into a way for Rangers fans — many of whom, never saw Potvin play — to express their general frustrations or to have a laugh during a lull in the action.”
The aforementioned background only serves to underscore the anxiety suffered by Rangers fans on the night of Dec. 20, 1985 when the Islanders came to Seventh Avenue with Captain Potvin leading the invasion.
Make no mistake, the rivalry was as intense as ever. That Potvin’s Islanders had set a record between 1980 and 1984 of 19 consecutive playoff series wins was fresh in the minds of fans and Denis still was in his prime, on the threshold of breaking Orr’s record for most points by a defenseman.
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Heading into Potvin’s record-breaking game, the Rangers and Isles were touch and go in the standings, each vying for a playoff berth and each eventually making it although the Nassaumen finished third in the Wales Conference one notch above the Rangers. Potvin’s 21 goals marked his ninth 20-goal season. He finished the campaign just four assists shy of severing Brad Park’s career assist mark of 683. It was now fair to suggest that Potvin was better than Orr.)
As for the game itself, the tension surrounding Potvin’s record was heightened since he had not scored in the previous four games. “The four-game drought was hurting us,” Denis allowed. “Everyone had become conscious about getting me the big point.”
It was the height of irony that the fifth game would unfold at The Garden with John Vanbiesbrouck in the Blueshirts’ goal facing Kelly Hrudey at the other end.
Less than four minutes into the opening period, the visitors scored. Potvin, who was at the end of his shift, spotted scoring legend Mike Bossy and skimmed a cross-rink pass to the right wing. Bossy beat Beezer at 3:38 to put Al Arbour’s club ahead.
I couldn’t believe it when Bossy scored,” explained Potvin. “My intention was to get the puck to him and get off the ice. I didn’t even see the puck go into the net. I looked at Bossy’s face and when he looked straight at me, I knew he had done it.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: Covering the game from the Islanders’ SportsChannel vantage point, I was interested in seeing how the pro-Rangers, anti-Potvin crowd would react. Would they – at least momentarily – acknowledge Denis’ greatness or would the perpetual animosity prevail? As it happened only a portion of the packed house cheered. But at least some recognized that a major milestone in league history had been reached. I felt good about that.)
The Associated Press reporter at rinkside offered this appraisal: “Most of the 17,409 fans — Rangers partisans — booed.“
In a sense, the Blueshirts faithful had the last laugh. Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, the Rangers rallied to tie the count, 2-2, on rookie Mike Ridley’s goal with less than four minutes remaining in regulation time. The game ended in a 2-2 draw.
Because of Potvin’s accomplishment the media crowded into the visitors’ room where Captain Denis held forth as long as the questions were fired at him. And when it came to the inevitable comparison with Orr:
“Obviously I wouldn’t have been close to the record had Bobby not had bad knees,” said Potvin. “But I’m excited about setting the record. I wanted to be compared with Bobby. That was my goal.”
(MAVEN’S THOUGHTS: I was very impressed with Potvin’s postscript and the fact that he not only praised Orr but noted how Bobby’s knees severely limited Orr’s career. Actually Denis broke the record in 882 NHL games while Bobby set the record in only 657 games. As for other significant comparisons; Orr won two Stanley Cups and Potvin four plus Denis lead the Isles to the never-to-be-broken 19 consecutive playoff series wins. What it comes down to is two extraordinary defensemen of differing styles and contrasting teams. Take your pick. I’ll take Potvin any day.)
Denis played through the 1987-88 season and soon was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Rangers fans rather view Potvin as worthy of a Hall of Infamy and the POTVIN SUCKS offers proof that there’s no end to Islanders-Rangers enmity.