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100 Greatest Players

Denis Potvin: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Prolific defenseman anchored Islanders dynasty in 1980s

by Wayne Coffey / Special to

You can see him even now, rushing up ice, blue line behind him, stick and puck far in front, almost as if he were daring somebody to take it away. When they try, Denis Potvin pulls the puck back, deftly maneuvers through traffic and powers ahead, a square-jawed force in a No. 5 sweater for the New York Islanders.

Potvin may not have been the original offensive defenseman, but he was one of the most prolific, anchoring four Stanley Cup championship teams, winning three Norris trophies and breaking Bobby Orr's record for goals by a defenseman.


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


That happened Jan. 28, 1986, at Nassau Coliseum, in the second period of a 9-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the 271st goal of Potvin's Hockey Hall of Fame career, and it came on one of his vaunted "snap shots," wristers so heavy they routinely would leave the goaltender feeling as if he were trying to stop a flying anvil.

And lest anyone think Potvin compromised his defensive responsibilities so he could do all this scoring, think again, said Ken Morrow, Potvin's fellow defenseman on those four championship teams from 1980-83 -- a historic run of dominance exceeded only by the Montreal Canadiens, who won the Cup five straight times between 1956 and 1960.

"I truly don't think Denis gets the credit he deserves," Morrow said. "He's a top-five defenseman all time for me. I might be a little prejudiced, [because] I got to see him firsthand, but he did it all. He wasn't just all offense. He wasn't just all defense. He could change the course of a game in many different ways, whether it was a thundering body check or a pass behind the net to Butch Goring on the penalty kill, or as one of the best power-play point men in history."


Games: 1,060 | Goals: 310 | Assists: 742 | Points: 1,052


The No. 1 pick in the 1973 NHL Draft, Potvin (6-foot, 205 pounds) made a seamless transition from his junior team, the Ottawa 67's, to the Islanders, capturing the Calder Trophy to kick-start a career that would conclude with nine NHL All-Star Game selections, along with the Norris trophies and the Cup victories. Potvin wasn't necessarily the biggest man on the ice, but he was always among the strongest, and any forward who had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of one of his hip checks would attest to that. Many years later, Morrow could vividly recall Potvin's pregame locker-room routine, in which he would lay out flat on the floor, on his stomach, and extend his arms as far forward as they could go, as if he were diving into a pool. Then he would do pushups in that position, an almost impossible feat of strength.

"I've never seen anyone else do that in my life," Morrow said.

Potvin laughed. "It helped get my blood flowing," he said.

Like a few million other Canadian kids over the past 100 years, Potvin learned the game in his backyard in Ottawa, putting skates on for the first time at age 3 and taking to the makeshift rink made by his father. Along with his big brother, Jean, himself a future Islander, Denis would start early and stay late. 

"We would never even take the skates off to get a sandwich," said Denis, whose mother would take their orders and deliver.

Denis Potvin grew into a strapping youngster who developed a love of football as well, a punishing high school running back who was eager to play both sports for as long as possible. When he was 14, the 67's, a new junior franchise that had already signed up Jean Potvin, reached out to Denis.

Putting on a jacket and tie, Denis went to meet with Bill Long, the coach of the 67's. Potvin couldn't wait to get started, but also asked Long if he could continue with football on the side. Long said he had no problem with it, but Potvin's high school football coach wasn't so accommodating, telling him if he missed even a single practice he would not play in that week's game.

It was a wrenching decision -- "awful" is how Potvin describes the process -- but in the end he had a chance to play junior hockey right in his hometown, and do so alongside Jean.

"In my view, I had no choice," said Potvin, who would never barrel into a line of scrimmage again.

An expansion team in only their second season when Potvin arrived, the Islanders began a rapid ascent, winning 19, 33, 42 and 47 games in Potvin's first four seasons, as coach Al Arbour methodically assembled a powerhouse that would also include four other future Hall of Famers, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith, along with a platoon of hard-working, high-achieving role players. Potvin was named captain prior to the 1979-80 season, which culminated in Cup victory No. 1 with a six-game overtime triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Final.

"I wanted to be the captain, (and) I wanted the dressing room to respect that fact," Potvin said. "My leadership qualities had nothing to do with what I said. It was important to me to go out night after night and show that intensity."

The Islanders would go on to win an NHL-record 19 consecutive playoff series, an achievement Potvin believes will never be duplicated. The 1983 team was perhaps the most storied of them all, outscoring four playoff opponents 94-53 and sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the Final.

That those Oilers -- which included some guys named Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Anderson and Fuhr -- would go on to forge their own dominance makes the Islanders rout that much more remarkable.

"I am not going to be humble about it," Potvin said. "I think it's the best team in the history of the game."

By the time he retired at 34, Potvin had 310 goals, 742 assists and 1,052 points, an NHL record for a defenseman at the time (Potvin is seventh on the all-time list), surpassing the 915 points racked up by Orr, the man widely acclaimed to be the greatest defenseman in NHL annals. Because they played against one another and because he broke Orr's streak of eight straight Norris trophies as the League's preeminent defenseman, Potvin found himself routinely compared with Orr, often unfavorably, and he understood implicitly what he was up against.

"If you would compare NHL defensemen to a rock band," Potvin once said, "Bobby Orr was the Beatles and then there was the rest of us."

In an interview with Islanders News shortly after Potvin's retirement, Orr was much more inclined to praise Potvin than engage in the comparisons.

"When the Bruins played the Islanders, it was understood throughout our team that it was mandatory to shut Denis down," Orr said. "If we let him carry the puck at will, the Islanders could beat us. That's not to say they were a one-man team, but Denis was definitely the dominating player for New York, and one of the best in the league.

"Offensively, he was incredible. He was such a big guy who could skate like the wind. One of the reasons I think it's ridiculous to try and decide who was better between the two of us is because we played under drastically different systems. In Al Arbour's scheme, there was no way Denis was allowed the freedom to roam with the puck the way I did in Boston. If he could, who knows how many more points he might have had? Defensively, he was underrated. Potvin more than held his own."

Potvin, for his part, is deeply content with captaining his team to the four Stanley Cups, with his body of work across 15 years. He never second-guessed his decision to retire at an early age, not wanting to overstay as his sublime skills began to erode. He skated away in 1988, playing his final game on April 12 against the New Jersey Devils, a 4-2 loss in Game 5 of the Patrick Division Semifinals.

Could a decade and a half really have passed since Potvin took to the ice in the Forum for the first time against his boyhood idols, the Montreal Canadiens?

Indeed it had, even if the memory seemed as fresh and pristine as pregame ice.

"It was the most nervous I've ever been," Potvin once told an interviewer. The nerves didn't improve any when the great Henri Richard came right at him, going wide, sticking out his left arm -- one of his trademark moves -- to carve out space.

The kid defenseman hung with him, though, and was only getting started. In 1991, Denis Potvin, onetime fullback turned NHL icon, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, fittingly with longtime teammate Bossy. There was nobody to hip check, no power play to run, only a transcendent moment to savor. Someone told him it was the crowning glory to his career, and Denis Potvin, No. 5 of the New York Islanders, liked the way that sounded.


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