Five hundred dollars is a lot of money by today’s standards, but what about in 1973? Could you imagine spending that kind of money, which is roughly the cost of a new lap top computer today, just to be able to wear your favorite jersey number? Well, Islanders legendary defenseman Denis Potvin couldn’t either.
The season before Potvin made it to the National Hockey League, he had a breakout season with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey Association, while wearing sweater number seven. That season, he played 61 games tallying an amazing 35 goals and 88 assists for 123 points and 232 penalty minutes.
“I always liked the odd numbers like seven or five, as opposed to two, four and eight and that kind of stuff. So if you are going to stay in the single digits, you don’t have a lot of options. And I couldn’t use number one.”
After his breakout season in Ottawa, Potvin was quickly touted as the top selection in the draft and after proving his worth in Training Camp, he earned a spot on the Islanders blueline. Upon arriving in Peterborough, Ontario for the Islanders training camp in September of 1973, Potvin was asked by the Islanders equipment manager, Jim Pickard, to pick his jersey number.
Having only a few options caused a little locker room competition among the players.
“I told Jim that I wore the number seven in junior hockey with the Ottawa 67’s,” Potvin explained. “Of course I had no idea who was who on the Islanders at the time and it turned out that there was a fellow named Germain Gagnon who was wearing the number seven.”
Potvin went on to say, “Of course, this is in September of ’73 and at that point I had to pick another number. I said ‘Well, let me see what I can think of.’ The next morning I got in to the dressing room and the number seven jersey was hanging up in my stall, but there was a note on it. Germain Gagnon was willing to let me wear number seven if I paid him $500. In 1973? So I said, ‘Forget it.’ ”
“I went back to Jim Pickard and I said, ‘Jim, I like single numbers, what other numbers do you have available?’ He said, ‘We have number five’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And that’s it. That’s the story of the number five and I never looked back,” said Potvin.
But he didn’t need to look back. In his first professional season, Potvin earned more than 50 points on the Islanders blueline, earning the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the rookie of the year. His very next season, Potvin helped the Islanders to their first playoff birth.
Just five seasons later, Potvin was named team captain. Under his leadership, the Islanders went on to win their first of four consecutive Stanley Cup Championships, creating a dynasty that is still remembered as one of the greatest.
But Potvin wasn’t the only Islanders player to wear sweater number five.
The Islanders acquired Ken Murray from the Buffalo Sabres in the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft. He played the first 39 games of the 1972-73 season, recording four assists and 59 penalty minutes before he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings.
Later that season, defenseman Ron Smith was called up from the Islanders AHL affiliate at the time, the New Haven Nighthawks. In 11 games for the Islanders, Smith scored one goal and one assist for two points and 14 penalty minutes. Smith was selected by the Islanders in the fourth round (49th overall) of the 1972 NHL Entry Draft. After the 1972-73 season, Smith played two seasons in the Central Hockey League.
The third and final Islanders player to don the sweater number five in the 1972-73 season was Isles forward Bob Nystrom. After being selected in the third round, Nystrom spent the majority of his rookie season in New Haven, but went on to play in 11 games for the Islanders, scoring one goal and one assist for two points and 10 penalty minutes.
While Nystrom wore number five that first season, he was called up to the Islanders full time at the start of the 1973-74 season. Since Potvin requested to wear the number five, Nystrom changed his sweater number to 23.
The first round draft pick gets everything. All I wanted was to be there, so there were no hard feelings, but two plus three adds up to five, just so you know. - Bob Nystrom
“The first round draft pick gets everything,” Nystrom joked. “All I wanted was to be there, so there were no hard feelings, but two plus three adds up to five, just so you know.”
When Potvin found out that he wasn’t the only Islanders player to want the number five, he was more than shocked.
“Did Bobby tell you that? Wow, I never knew that. That’s amazing.”
But from that point forward, Potvin wore sweater number five until he retired at the end of the 1987-88 season. Four years later, the Islanders retired their first sweater in honor of their Stanley Cup team captain and dynamic defenseman.
When his number was finally raised to the rafters of the Coliseum on February 1, 1992, Potvin couldn’t have felt more honored.
“At the time, all I could think about was what we had accomplished as a team. The number went up next to Stanley Cup banners and Divisional Championships and when I was looking at them I was thinking about all of those things that had gone on,” Potvin said. “To me, it’s such a great honor. It was a wonderful day.”