During that torturously long first season before the ballyhooed arrival of Denis Potvin as the new Bobby Orr, the New York Islanders served as hockey's answer to another cast of expansion rejects that had once disgraced the Big Apple—the Amazin' Mets. Trouble was, the original Islanders could not calm their critics, including all those haughty Ranger lovers in Manhattan, by feeding them a dose of Casey Stengel's gibberish. One can only imagine, after another of those 9-1 Metsian routs that the Islanders suffered about once a week, how convenient it would have been to have Ol' Case laying down a verbal smoke screen for the press. "Now this game here, with my Amazins, you see, when I was born, which I was before they invented the puck, the slap shot was illegal because of the spitter, and they...." But since there was no Stengel, the Islanders could only suffer. And oh, did they suffer.
"Hapless was the word," groans General Manager Bill Torrey, remembering the first year. "The Rangers play the hapless Islanders tonight. The Bruins get a breather against the hapless Islanders. Les Canadiens rout hapless Islanders. Cripes, I thought hapless was the only word in the English language." But Torrey cannot dispute the accuracy of the adjective; the 1972-73 Islanders were indisputably the worst team in the history of the NHL until the Washington Capitals appeared this season. The original Islanders won only 12 games, a record low, and lost 60, a record high, and along the way yielded a record 347 goals to the opposition. Worst of all, they finished 72 points behind the Rangers.
For being so hapless, though, the Islanders were rewarded with the No. 1 choice in the NHL's 1973 amateur draft. Resisting several attractive trade proposals, Torrey selected the sturdy Potvin, who had acquired a reputation as "the next Orr" while breaking all of Bobby's records in the Ontario Hockey Association. "Hold it," Potvin said. "I don't want to be the second coming of Bobby Orr. I want to be the first Denis Potvin." Identity problems aside, Torrey knew that Potvin would do for the Islanders what Orr had done for the Bruins. That is, Torrey knew Potvin someday would wipe the smirks from the faces of all those people who had ridiculed the Islanders so regularly in their first year. Particularly those smug Rangers, who had charged the Islanders an indemnity of almost $8 million, including interest, for invasion of their territory. What Torrey didn't know was that Potvin would do it so quickly.
In just two seasons the 21-year-old Potvin has emerged as the No. 2 defense-man in the game and, better still, has helped convert the Islanders from wretched losers to respectable winners. In a town where Brad Park of the Rangers was once compared favorably to Orr, it is now Potvin whose name is linked with the Boston star. And it was Potvin, not Park, who led all Campbell Conference defensemen in the voting for this year's midseason All-Star Game. In fact, when someone recently asked Potvin how it felt to be playing in the shadow of Park in New York, he answered dryly, "I didn't know I was." Last year Potvin easily bettered the rookie records of both Orr and Park as he led the Islanders in scoring, with 17 goals and 37 assists. So far this season he again leads the Islanders, with 20 goals and 50 assists, and Boston's Orr and Carol Vadnais are the only defensemen who have more points.
More important, thanks mainly to Potvin and Billy Bow Tie, as Torrey is called, the Islanders have shed their image of haplessness.
After beating Kansas City and Chicago and tying Vancouver and Minnesota last week, the Islanders, age three, trailed the Rangers, age 48, by just two points in the Patrick Division race for second place behind Philadelphia. Overall, the Islanders owned the sixth-best record in the NHL, ranked a strong third in the goals-against column, led the league in penalty-killing statistics and—chuckle, chuckle-had lost two fewer games than the Rangers. Now, if the Islanders and the Rangers can maintain their relative positions ahead of the fourth-place Atlanta Flames during the last two weeks of the season, they may even be squaring off against one another in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Despite their impressive record, the Islanders have been unable to defeat the Rangers in any of their four head-to-head confrontations this season, managing only a 1-1 tie at Madison Square Garden.
"We know we're better than the Rangers," says Potvin. "We're younger, stronger and better. For some reason, though, we have too much respect for them. We treat them like gods. I guess we really have a bit of an inferiority complex, probably because we believe too much of what we hear and read about them."
Around Madison Square Garden the sudden success of the Islanders has prompted even the most diehard Ranger sufferers to question the managerial widsom of Ranger Coach and General Manager Emile Francis, whose team has not won anything in almost 35 years. It is bad enough that Dr. J and the New York Nets, who share the Nassau Coliseum with Potvin and the Islanders, probably would destroy the Knicks in a basketball game. Now this?
As always, the Rangers have a long list of excuses to explain their predicament. Injuries, of course. So far the Rangers have lost 240 man-games because of 22 different injuries, including a back fusion, two broken legs, two broken ankles, one cracked hip socket, nine separate knee disabilities and wounded pride. In fact, only two Rangers, Steve Vickers and Bill Fairbairn, have played in every game. The Rangers also moan that bad calls by the referees have cost them a few defeats. And now there is a new complaint: bad ice at Madison Square Garden. For sure, the Garden skating surface over the years has earned a reputation as the worst in major league hockey—soft and too deeply rutted to lend itself to smooth skating or crisp passing. However, as Buffalo's Richard Martin said after the Sabres whipped the Rangers at the Garden, "The ice is the same for both clubs, isn't it?"
Valid or not, excuses are only good on a season-to-season basis. What bothers the expense-account crowd at the Garden most of all is that the Islanders seem to have a roster loaded with promising young players such as Potvin, Billy Harris, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Dave Lewis, Andre St. Laurent and Bob Bourne, while onetime promising young Rangers are playing for Pittsburgh (Syl Apps Jr.), or Los Angeles (Mike Murphy and Tommy Williams), or Philadelphia (Moose Dupont), or Atlanta (Curt Bennett) or Buffalo (Don Luce). "I'm afraid that Francis traded the wrong guys," says one traded Ranger. "He should have kept the guys he traded and traded the guys he kept. Wait and see, the Islanders will win the Cup before the Rangers."
While Francis has indeed always tended to alter his operational policies at the first sign of a minor crisis, Billy Bow Tie never panicked during those days of the hapless Islanders. Torrey, who ran the only successful team that the NHL has ever had in Oakland, is a superstitious sort who will not sip his standard pre-game extra-dry vodka martini unless there are two olives nestled inside. "Two olives mean two points for a victory," he says. "One means one point for a tie and no olive means...guess what?" Torrey also is the only NFL general manager with a serious academic background, having graduated from St. Lawrence University nearly 20 years ago.
"Right from the start I committed myself to a definite youth program," Torrey said Saturday night as he swirled the two olives in his martini before the Islanders' 4-2 victory over the Black Hawks. "I told Roy Boe [club president] to expect nothing from the expansion draft. I even told Roy we'd have to get rid of most of the players we picked up in that draft just as fast as we could." The rival World Hockey Association helped Torrey in this regard by signing seven of the 19 players the Islanders selected. "We had two other peculiar problems," Torrey said. "The people in New York thought we were brand X compared to the Rangers, so we could afford to be brand X for a while. No one expected us to win many games. At the same time I knew that Atlanta, which came into the league with us, would have a much stronger team than the Islanders and that people would be making a lot of comparisons. So what? Atlanta had to win immediately because hockey was a new game in town and the people there wouldn't support a loser. The Flames had to win now. We could win later."
As Torrey had predicted, the original Islanders were awful, so terrible, in fact, that they drove two coaches, Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield, clear back to Canada. At the end of that first season Torrey offered the job to Al Arbour, a no-nonsense defensive tactician who had been fired not once but twice by the brain trust of the St. Louis Blues. Arbour declined. "When I discussed the job with my wife," he said, "all she could think about was the muggings in the streets of New York. Then we went on holiday to Florida and met a couple from Long Island on the beach. For two days they kept selling us on what a great place Long Island was, that it was nothing like New York City, that it even had trees. So I called Bill back, told him that I wanted to bring Claire to Long Island for a look and, well, here I am."
Arbour's present Islanders mainly are made up of Torrey's amateur draft choices, all of whom are under the age of 24, but include Defensemen Bert Marshall and Jean Potvin, Denis' older brother, and rookie Goalie Glenn Resch, who discovered hair transplants before Gaylord Perry; three holdovers from the expansion draft—Center Eddie Westfall, Defenseman Gerry Hart and Goaltender Billy Smith; and two veterans, Winger J.P. Parise and Center Jude Drouin, whom Torrey managed to steal from the Minnesota North Stars. Parise, tough in the corners, scored two power-play goals in the Islanders' triumph over the Black Hawks, while Garry Howatt and Bob Nystrom, two products of Torrey's scouting system, scored the others.
Howatt, a 22-year-old, 5'9", 170-pound epileptic, established himself as a fighter last season by winning 25 of his 29 main events, the best fistic record in the NHL. However, he only scored six goals. This season he rarely fights—"Nobody wants to fight him," says Potvin—and has scored 18 goals while playing on a kid line with 22-year-old Nystrom and 22-year-old St. Laurent. Nystrom, the blond Nordic hammer, was such a poor skater when he joined the Islanders that Torrey made him take lessons from a female figure-skating instructor. Now he skates gracefully, if not quite in Peggy Fleming's class, and has scored more than 20 goals in each of the past two seasons.
Denis Potvin, meanwhile, had two more assists in the Chicago game, as did brother Jean. The Potvins work the points together on most Islander power plays, and occasionally team up on defense. For Denis, it was a quiet night's work. He rushed only rarely, concentrating primarily on his defensive duties at the insistence of the steely-minded Arbour, who carried the puck past his own blue line maybe twice in an 11-year career as a defenseman. Potvin would still like to bring the puck out himself, but he understands his coach's reasoning. "We're going for the playoffs, and the pressure is on now," Denis says. "Al's right. I can't take any chances with the puck. I've got to play defense like a defenseman."
Potvin and Orr have one basic similarity on the ice: they both control the flow of the play. They initiate the attack and oftentimes personally conclude it; Orr has scored a record 42 goals already this season. Eddie Westfall played for Boston when Orr arrived there in 1966 and for the Islanders when Potvin came in 1973, and he does not hesitate to compare them. Westfall also likes to play fun 'n games with Potvin. After hearing Arbour tell Potvin that he was skating with a bag of cement tied to his backside, Westfall went out, bought a 100-pound bag of cement and had it wheeled onto the ice for the unsuspecting Potvin.
"As personalities," Westfall says, "Bobby is quite shy and bashful, while Denis is bashful but not that shy. Denis is more physical than Bobby. He will throw a good hard body check, whereas Bobby will separate a player from the puck with some quick moves of his stick. The big difference really is quickness. Bobby has three speeds of fast, and he can get his body going in 10 different directions all at once. Denis does not have Bobby's great bursts of speed; his tempo is much slower, much more controlled. Put it this way: when Denis beats you on a rush, he does it with a definite move involved with handling the puck. When Bobby beats you, he can do it with speed or with that definite puck-handling move. It's no knock to say that at this time Bobby is a more complete player."
"Let's be honest," Potvin himself says. "Bobby and I are worlds apart. He's the best in the world. I just hope that someday there will be occasion for people to describe a young defenseman as 'another Denis Potvin.' " Much to his regret, Potvin has saved some of his worst performances for games at the Boston Garden. "It's the mystique of Orr," he says. "I can't ignore the fact that he plays there, that he is where I want to be. I feel the comparisons, sure. Who wouldn't? Unfortunately, I've never played well enough in Boston to justify them."
Potvin is not a stereotyped hockey player who lives, eats and sleeps with a puck in his hand. "He's a sophisticated kid," says Goaltender Billy Smith. "He goes out to eat and orders snails and the right bottle of wine. If a guy asks me what kind of wine I want, I say 'Mateus' because it's the only one I know." Denis says, "I'm afraid too many people over-dramatize my situation. I'm a hockey player, true, but I'm also a person, someone with a lot of outside interests. Hockey comes first now, but there are other things to do, too." As president of Denis Potvin Ltd., an American corporation chartered in St. Louis, with branch offices in Garden City, N.Y. and Montreal, Denis can keep close tabs on his business affairs, with help from the vice-president of Denis Potvin Ltd., his wife Debbie. The Potvins live in a spacious condominium about five minutes from the Nassau Coliseum and are deep into interior decoration. "We're going big for the earth colors, like browns and greens and oranges, and avoiding all the plastics," says Denis. They have furnished the apartment with a Queen Anne dining room set, a King George hutch and an orange-marble coffee table. "What I'm looking for now is an armless rocking chair for Debbie," Denis said last week as he set out on a quick shopping tour in Kansas City.
On the ice Potvin has a hard disposition. The other night Parise, who is 12 years his senior, mishandled a perfect pass from Potvin because he had only one hand on his stick—a cardinal sin. Parise had an open net before him, and he should have scored easily. Back on the bench Potvin did not hesitate to tell Parise that he had to bear down at all times. After the game Parise approached Potvin and told him that he had been perfectly correct in berating him, that his mind had not been on the game. But Arbour—probably the best coach in the NHL this season—was slightly miffed at Potvin, too, because Denis had abandoned his defensive position in the closing moments of the close game and had needlessly rushed up ice with the puck. "Al's right," Potvin admitted.
A player accepting criticism? Two players accepting criticism? Ol' Case would be speechless.