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Maven's Memories: The Tough Corralling Of Denis Potvin

There was some drama ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft, plus Stan's top Isles draft picks

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / New York Islanders

Throughout June 1973, the eyes of the hockey world were riveted on Denis Potvin.

So were the claws.

Secure in the knowledge that they owned the first draft pick, the Islanders' high command couldn't wait to arrive in Montreal to pluck what could prove to be the all-time draft prize. But there were obstacles, both within and without the NHL.

Entering its second season of competition, the World Hockey Association busily extracted NHL stars such as Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers and Gordie Howe, while threatening to get more for the 1973-74 campaign.

No less a threat to Islander General Manager Bill Torrey's aspirations were teams within the Islanders fraternity; especially the Montreal Canadiens.

Habs General Manager Sam Pollock was notorious for his persuasiveness in trade talks -- especially when dealing with expansion teams.

Pollock's clubs had won Stanley Cups in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1973. And Slick Sammy knew that Potvin could give him a sweet shot at another champagne goblet.

No fool, Potvin realized that he was in the catbird seat, ready to pounce on the most succulent prize. When I wrote Denis' autobiography, "Power On Ice" for him, he enumerated the choices available.

"Three WHA teams, the New York Raiders, Chicago Cougars and Ottawa Nationals made offers," he noted. "But I wanted to hear from the NHL where the real money was -- not to mention the prestige."

The media had a field day guessing which way the promising defenseman would go. "It looks," said an article in The Canadian magazine, "as if the Islanders will get him."

It proved to be a good guess but many elements intervened and, for a time, it seemed as if the Montreal Canadiens would somehow wind up with Potvin.

Meanwhile, the pressure on the young defenseman mounted as indicated by newspaper headlines in both English and French:

DENIS POTVIN TOUTED AS NEXT BOBBY ORR -- Ottawa Journal

ANOTHER BOBBY ORR? DENIS POTVIN PRAISED BY NHL VETS -- Ottawa Citizen

POTVIN TOUTED AS NEXT BOBBY ORR -- Montreal Star

"That stuff bothered me," Denis allowed. "There's Bobby Orr and there's me. Orr does things I don't do, and I do things he doesn't do. You can't compare us. I don't want everybody measuring me against Orr."

Interestingly, Orr and Potvin had met at a golf tourney before the draft and enjoyed a friendly chat. The immortal Orr empathized with the prodigy. 

"I know what you're going through, Denis, because I went through the same thing," Orr had told Potvin. "The pressure, the press clippings, the magazine articles. My advice -- just be yourself."

Video: Denis Potvin was captain of Islanders' 1980s dynasty

By the time the 1973 entry draft was to begin, Potvin's advisors had ruled out the WHA teams as possible destinations for their prize client. Now Denis was concentrating on making a positive impression.

Preparing for the event, Denis decided, "I wanted to look like anything but a hockey player, so I wore a dark, pin-striped suit with a white shirt and a dark tie. 

"Later, I saw the other players wearing flashy bow ties, checkered plaid suits with plaid pants; real hockey player-type stuff."

Meanwhile, a plot was being hatched by Montreal's Pollock. The Canadiens guru's plan was simple; entice Torrey with a bunch of players; make it an offer that Bow Tie Bill could not refuse.

Sammy suggested that he and Torrey go outside, get some fresh air and stroll along the downtown Montreal sidewalks. The Islanders boss was well prepared to listen. Just listen:

Torrey: "We went around the block once and Sam was working on me pretty good. He had several possibilities and I considered them all, but I was convinced that we had to build the team around Denis."

Pollock kept upping the ante, finally offering four good players for Potvin. 

"Sammy wouldn't give up," Torrey added.

Potvin was well aware of the Canadiens lobbying effort and it annoyed him no end. He deduced Pollock's game plan and figured that Sammy would play the Montreal card.

Denis: "I knew that every red-blooded French-Canadian was supposed to want to play for Les Canadiens. But I wasn't one of them. I didn't want Bill to trade me to Montreal."

By this time the tension could be cut by 10 shrinks. As league executives prepared for a first pick, NHL President Clarence Campbell announced, "We are ready to begin."

Torrey was about to announce his choice when it felt as if the entire audience had become enveloped in a collective case of lockjaw. Pollock unexpectedly raised his hand and made a request of Campbell:

"May I interrupt for a moment to have a word with Mister Torrey?"

Time out was called and the two hockey bosses huddled. Meanwhile, the object of their affections, Potvin, stewed in his seat. "My worst fears were about to be confirmed. They were about to make a deal."

 "Sammy wouldn't give up," Bow Tie Bill remembered. 

Fortunately, Torrey had a good memory. He recalled that a couple of years earlier Pollock had convinced the California Golden Seals to absorb some of his discardable veterans for its top pick in the 1971 draft. As a result, Pollock emerged with Guy Lafleur a future Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup star.

Torrey's aide, Jim Devellano, was among the onlookers concerned about a possible change of Bill's mind.  

Devellano: "Some of our people genuinely were worried that Bill would make a deal. But it would be going against everything we were trying to accomplish. We all knew that going through that first season and losing so much at least in the end we'd have a shot at a great young player.

"On the other side, there never was the slightest doubt that we would select Denis. You don't pass on a franchise-maker."

In the final dramatic moment of the melodrama, Pollock whispered in Torrey's ear. 

"Sammy made one last offer," Torrey said. "I listened and then he returned to his table. I went up to the dais."

A hush descended on the draft as Bow Tie Bill intoned, "THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS WISH TO DRAFT AS THEIR FIRST CHOICE -- DENIS POTVIN!"

And that's how the franchise-maker was born as a big-leaguer!


LIST: MY BEST ISLANDERS DRAFT PICKS IN FIRST DOZEN YEARS

Everyone knows that Denis Potvin was the first big headliner leading to the Islanders dynasty. But Potvin was both preceded and followed by numerous key selections. My favorites follow:

10. KELLY HRUDEY (PICKED 38TH IN 1978): The able goaltending successor to Bill Smith, Hrudey starred in the unforgettable "Easter Epic," defeating Washington in four overtimes. 

9. STEFAN PERSSON (PICKED 214TH IN 1974): Arguably the most underrated all-time Islanders D-man, the Swede often covered for his buddy, Denis Potvin. 

8. JOHN TONELLI (PICKED 33RD IN 1977): Good in every offensive way, JT skimmed the perfect pass for Bobby Ny's Cup-winning goal.

7. BOB NYSTROM (PICKED 33RD IN 1972): The man who delivered the first Cup winning goal never will be forgotten. 

6. KEN MORROW (PICKED 68TH IN 1976): The 1980 "Miracle Man" got a Gold in Lake Placid and was then at the core of four Cup-winning teams (Glen Hanlon remembers him well). 

5. PAT LAFONTAINE (PICKED 3RD IN 1983): The Islanders "Road Runner" lived up to his pick and is best remembered for his "Easter Epic" fourth overtime series-winner. 

4. CLARK GILLIES (PICKED 4TH IN 1974): "Jethro" could slug foes as well as he could score goals and ride shotgun for his linemates Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier.

3. MIKE BOSSY (PICKED 18TH IN 1977): The greatest pure goal scorer in Isles history paced the quartet of Cup victories. 

2. BRYAN TROTTIER (PICKED 22ND IN 1974): If there is a better two-way hitting center in modern hockey, I'd like to know who he is. Forget it, there is none!

1. DENIS POTVIN (PICKED 1ST IN 1973): Better than Bobby Orr? Better than Larry Robinson? Better Brad Park? The Maven says YES!

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