The image of Bobby Orr no longer looms over Denis Potvin in the Boston Garden. The Montreal Forum, which used to intimidate Potvin to the point that he could actually feel his arms grow shorter when he played there, is now just another ice house. And the days of confusion, turmoil and alienation, seasons in which he painfully learned the rudiments of humility, teamwork and tact, lie behind him now as certainly as they lay before him six years ago. Forget all the old ghosts that attended him. Denis Potvin has survived himself and finally arrived. Nearing the prime of his career, the 25-year-old defenseman of the New York Islanders has come of age.
He is unequivocally the finest at his position in the NHL today. On a team that doesn't want for talent, Potvin has emerged as its single most important force. In Center Bryan Trottier, the Islanders have the highest scorer in the league—47 goals and 87 assists for 134 points—and in Mike Bossy, who led the league with 69 goals, they have a right wing with a shot quicker than even Guy Lafleur's. But the 6', 205-pound Potvin—dominating and controlling play, imposing himself upon the flow of the game at both ends of the ice—is the reason the Islanders beat the Canadiens in three of their four games this year and finished the regular season last Sunday as the No. 1 team in the NHL. He also is the reason, as Stanley Cup play gets under way this week, the Islanders could well put an end to the Canadiens' three-year stranglehold on the Cup.
Few teams have won the Stanley Cup, or even gotten as far as the finals, without a dominant defenseman who can take charge and govern the tempo of a game. Orr took the Boston Bruins to the finals three times. If not for Brad Park, the Bruins would not have made it to the finals the past two years. Larry Robinson was essential in Montreal's last three Stanley Cup victories.
Whether or not the Islanders win the Stanley Cup, this has been Potvin's year, his season of arrival as he scored 31 goals and 70 assists for 101 points, joining Orr as the only other defenseman ever to score more than 100 points.
"When Denis makes up his mind to be the best player on the ice, he is the best player on the ice," says teammate Ed Westfall, who played with Orr for six seasons in Boston. "Denis tends sometimes to lay back a little bit and maybe not put all his effort into it at all times, but when he makes up his mind, he is a master at the fundamentals of the game: he passes, he shoots, he skates and he checks. He just does it all."
Never did he do it all better than on March 22 in the Montreal Forum. Potvin gave a virtuoso performance—rushing the puck up the middle and down the side, headmanning the puck to the forwards to quicken the offensive flow, intercepting passes, checking everything that moved and finally, when the Islanders needed it most, scoring. With the game tied 3-3, Potvin hammered a slap shot past Ken Dryden for what turned out to be the winning goal.
"I could see it right away out there," Islander Coach Al Arbour said of Potvin's performance. "He became commanding. He took charge. Denis now is more commanding than he's ever been. Most of the teams that have won the Stanley Cup have had that big guy back there, like Robinson and Orr, to take charge. Denis is in their class, no doubt about it. He's just starting to take charge and he's going to get better at it."
Potvin's future was not always seen so clearly. There were days, and not too long ago, when he was very young and living a life alienated from most of the Islanders—alone, confused, depressed, outcast. And there were days when he was struggling on the ice to live up to what had always been predicted for him as a hockey player. He was burdened early with great expectations, and grew up with a vision of himself as broad and encompassing as the rinks on which he saw himself one day transcendent.
At 14, already regarded as a prodigy, Potvin played his first game in the Montreal Forum, before more than 15,000 fans. That year he also learned from reading newspapers that he was to be the second coming of Orr, who was still working at being the first. The compliment spurred him.
"Denis was a good hockey player at the beginning, but he never saw himself as something special," says his mother Lucille. "But the Orr thing hit him. He knew then that he was better than he thought he was."
It was heady tonic to be 14 and the second Orr. But Potvin soon tired of the comparison. "It was constant," he says. "Anytime I did something in the juniors, I heard 'Orr did it...Orr did it...Orr did it.' It was a heck of a compliment, but after a while you say, 'But I did it...I did it!' It was tough. I let it get to me for a long time."
Potvin certainly never did anything on the ice to discourage the comparison. By the time he was 15, the media had made him a public figure, and by the time he was 19—when the Islanders made him the No. 1 choice in the 1973 amateur draft—he was a celebrity, a star. The Islanders had just concluded their first season in the NHL, winning but 12 of 78 games. Potvin was hailed as the savior who would make them a winner.
"He was a kid," says Westfall. "He was still only 20 years of age, no matter how much better he was than guys who had been playing 15 years and were 35. It was a big adjustment for him. He was under tremendous pressure."
Potvin found trouble early, and it tracked him off and on for almost four years. "I was pretty cocky when I came up," Potvin says. "I'd been a superstar all my life. And I mean, it wasn't my job to keep me happy. People wanted to do that so I could play well. So I figured, 'Why should that change? Why was it that people didn't care anymore whether or not I was happy?' "
They didn't care because, aside from finding Potvin gifted and special as a hockey player, they also perceived him to be selfish, insensitive and tactlessly critical of others. He wanted things done the way he wanted things done.
"When he first came up and would say and do the things he did," says Islander Goalie Glenn Resch, "guys would say, 'Who the hell is that?' "
"Denis had decided, in his eagerness, to try and be mature very quickly," says Westfall. "He alienated himself and, well, some of the toughest critics are not the media but the players themselves. Denis is an aggressive hockey player. He was aggressive in his personality, and that got him into trouble."
Trouble was as easy as icing the puck in those days. Uniondale, the home of the Islanders, lies about 35 miles east of Manhattan, in the middle of one of the nation's most populous suburbs. Most of the other young Islanders came from small rural communities in western Canada. They adapted easily and readily to suburban life. Denis was a city guy. He grew up within minutes of downtown Ottawa, and favored the museums and lights of Manhattan to the lawns and lamps of Long Island. This was all well and good, of course, until the day he openly praised the cultural virtues of the city and wondered why his fellow Islanders didn't share his enthusiasm. His teammates bristled. He felt more isolated than ever, and relationships became even more strained.
"My interest in the city and the fact that I expressed it made people a little shaky," Potvin says. "I felt like an outcast. Very alone."
Not that his hockey suffered appreciably. While learning and maturing as a defenseman, Potvin grew increasingly productive on offense the first three years—from 17 goals and 37 assists for 54 points in 1973-74 to 21 goals and 55 assists for 76 points in 1974-75 to 31 goals and 67 assists for 98 points in 1975-76. His only bad games, it seemed, came in the Boston Garden, where Orr was playing, and in the Montreal Forum, where Potvin felt he was in another world.
"I grew up looking at the Forum like a shrine," Potvin says. "The Canadiens were a tradition. I was raised with the Canadiens. When I talked about a hockey jersey, it was a Canadien jersey. When it was Wednesday, it was stay-at-home-and-watch-the-game day. And Saturday night it was watch them again. It was a ritual. They were as much a part of my life as eating meat and mashed potatoes. When I went there it was scary. I wasn't playing for them, I was playing against them. I couldn't even handle the puck."
The Orr complex was different, Potvin says, but it had the same effect. "It was an individual thing with Orr," he says. "I grew up looking at him, and seeing what he was doing, and knowing that he was exactly what I wanted to be. I'd lived with this since I was 14. Maybe the head-to-head confrontation, in an uncomfortable surrounding like Boston, was too much. I thought more of the confrontation than I did of the game. I sensed it coming but I couldn't do anything about it. I was afraid, I was shaking, and I kept telling myself that once I get on the ice and get my first hit, everything will be out of the way. But it didn't happen that easy. It was too deep-rooted. I knew I wasn't playing well in Boston and Montreal. I could never understand it. I was playing with my legs and stick rather than my head. Every game I was held back somehow. It's like reaching—and having your arms be too short. The more I worked, the shorter and shorter the arms got. I could never understand it."
As things turned out, it was the matter of Orr that brought Potvin's personality problems with the Islanders to a head and, ultimately, to a resolution. In the fall of 1976, following the Canada Cup games, Potvin wrote an article for The Canadian, a Saturday supplement to the Toronto Star, in which he praised Orr but insisted that he, Potvin, had outplayed Orr in Canada's 3-1 victory over the Soviet Union and deserved the MVP Award more than Orr, who won it.
Resch, among other Islanders, was aghast. "There was just no reason on earth to say the things that Denis said about Orr," Resch says. "I was so mad at him I could hardly talk to him. It was Orr's last hurrah and all the players knew it. Denny was going to have many more chances."
Wrath descended upon Potvin from everywhere, and old resentments among teammates surfaced.
"I didn't want dissension," Potvin says. "I had confidence in myself. It seemed no one wanted to help me get on the right track, so I had to do it myself. I got myself into that hold, and I worked myself out of it. No help from anybody. My interest in doing it was for the team, because I felt that if there was that kind of dissension, certain guys were going to carry it onto the ice. You can't avoid it."
So, one day that fall of 1976, a few weeks after the Canada Cup, Potvin stood up and faced the Islanders in the dressing room at their practice rink on Long Island.
"Standing up in that room, well, it was something I had a tough time doing," Potvin says. "I could hardly express what I was saying. But I battled everything to get it out because I knew what I wanted to say."
Which was that he was sorry. "He just poured himself out," says Westfall. "He said, 'I have done some things that made you look bad, mostly made myself look bad, and I'm here now to apologize for anything I have said or done that embarrassed any of you. I'm struggling with the thing. I'm doing my best to correct it. I made my mistakes. I can't be persecuted the rest of my life for something I did three years ago.'
"What he was saying was, 'Look, I may need a little help, I'm trying like hell, I don't want to make the same mistakes again. I'm very aware of what I've done. I know what it meant to you fellows. I'm going to try to make it up.' " Potvin's apologia is regarded as the turning point in the fortunes of the Islanders. "I think it was the beginning of putting our team together," Arbour says.
"It was the cornerstone to building the close, solid team that we have now," says Resch. "Shoot, we all made mistakes. It wasn't only Denny, it was all of us. We were all trying to get our feet on the ground, to create our own identity out here. I think we were insensitive to one another. I was as guilty as anyone. People would say to me, 'He's only 20. Or 21. Or 22.' I'd say, 'Shoot, that's no excuse.' He's done more than I had done at 25. I was stupid enough to think he should have been 25 when he was 20."
Says Potvin, "I felt as if I had had gallstones taken out. It made such a change, a wonderful difference. Guys I hadn't talked with in two years were coming up and talking to me. It's a world of difference now and it shows. The team is rolling now. There's a care. There's love for each other, I guess. If a guy makes a mistake, I have to feel enough for that guy to go and bust my butt to try and cover for him. The same applies when I make a mistake. I see it happening now. I make a mistake and I look around and two guys are covering for me. That's the way it has to be. It's such a comfortable feeling. You don't want to lose that. It's really the essence behind winning a championship."
Which is what the top-seeded Islanders hope to do in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since they were launched seven years ago, they have had successively better seasons, winning more and losing less each year. Last season, his fifth with the Islanders, Potvin won his second Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, and after his third 30-goal season in the last five years—Orr is the only other defenseman ever to score 30 goals—Potvin is a lock to win it again this year, the year "Orr did it..." died out and the Forum became just a building on St. Catherine's Street.
Potvin could feel the transformation becoming complete when Referee Bryan Lewis dropped the puck for that game in the Forum on March 22. Potvin says he simply threw off his paralyzing reverence like an old wrap.
"I was tired of it, tired of the mediocre play, bored with it," Potvin says. "I came out of it at the faceoff. I could feel it. I was mad, and not intimidated. The game I played that Thursday night was the first time I ever felt comfortable in the Montreal Forum. It was the first time in six years! At the faceoff I could have screamed. I felt like I could have done anything in that game. It was like being damned cold and jumping into the womb. You were nourished by the good passing, by the excitement, by the good plays, the good hits. And what better time to pull out of it than then, when everything was on the line?"