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Torrey was major influence on Potvin during, after career

Hall of Fame defenseman enjoyed 'a lot of wonderful times' with architect of Islanders dynasty

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

The New York Islanders were on the road for a Stanley Cup Playoff game against the Washington Capitals on April 16, 1984.

It was around 7 a.m., roughly 12 hours before Game 4 of the Patrick Division Final, when the phone rang in the hotel room shared by Denis Potvin and his brother Jean. On the line was their brother Bob, calling from Ottawa, to let them know their father, Armand, had died after a long illness.

Almost immediately, there was a knock on the hotel room door.

It was Bill Torrey.

"I'm sure every guy on the team has got a story like that," Potvin told on Thursday, fighting back tears after hearing that Torrey, the Islanders longtime general manager and architect of the team that won four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83, had died the age of 83. "He was the first one to knock on the door. He came in and he sat with my brother."

What struck Potvin is that Torrey never brought up the important game that night. He was there to console. Finally, Jean had to ask if Denis would play.

Video: Bill Torrey - one of the most respected men in hockey

"I didn't want to think about it, and Bill never said anything. I did play that night, and we ended up winning 5-2," Denis Potvin said. "It was a game that I had to play, you know? Bill's influence in our life; that's the day my dad died, and Bill Torrey is right there."

Torrey selected Potvin, then 19, with the No. 1 pick in the 1973 Draft. Since then, there have been 45 years of memories Potvin will cherish, starting with the evolution of the Islanders from an expansion team into a dynasty. And of Torrey, who would become the president of the Florida Panthers in 1993, helping Potvin with his broadcasting aspirations with the expansion team in the 1990s. And of Torrey's help and influence when Potvin's mom died in 2010.

"There's been a lot of wonderful times with Bill between 1973 and this morning," Potvin said.

Many of those wonderful times were on Long Island, where Potvin was captain from 1979-87. With Torrey as general manager and Al Arbour as coach, the Islanders were the model franchise in the NHL. They fell three wins shy of a fifth straight championship in 1984, when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final. Arbour died in 2015.

"I have yet to think of a coach and general manager relationship that was so in-tuned and so needing to win," Potvin said. "They treated everybody individually. The conversations Bill and Al had with Clark Gillies or Bryan Trottier were unbeknownst to me. I knew that my conversations with those guys were private and stayed that way, and that was important for each and every one of us.

"There's never been and there never will be a team that can put a five-year span together where you go to the Final each year, win each round of those games in the five years of playoffs and lose in the final round to a great team like Edmonton (in 1984). [Torrey] of course, he was there, and Al Arbour was too my first 13 consecutive years in the NHL. My God, that in itself is unprecedented."

Video: Butch Goring on the passing of Bill Torrey

Potvin said it was only a few days ago that he was going through old pictures and came across one taken from his introductory press conference with the Islanders in 1973, at the Long Island Inn. It was a picture of himself, his parents and Torrey.

"They both couldn't stand it when they saw me leave home," Potvin said. "But when they saw a guy like Bill Torrey, it was 'OK. He'll take care of him.' That was probably the most special of the early meetings.

"If you could make an impression on my mother and father, it was a good way to go. Bill Torrey treated my parents like royalty. That you never forget."

After speaking with Torrey's son Richard on Thursday, Potvin called former Islanders forward Bob Nystrom, whose overtime goal in Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final secured the first of four straight championships. Nystrom had already begun calling former teammates to let them know their GM was gone.

"It's going to be one terrific tribute for him," Potvin said. "He was probably as good a listener as I have ever seen, and I think probably a big reason for his success. He listened to people, he enjoyed people.

"There was no adult in my life who was still in my life and still so influential in many ways."

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