Potvin, Denis Charles

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POTVIN, Denis Charles

(b. 29 October 1953 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), Hall of Fame hockey player who, as team captain, led the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1980 and 1983 and was the highest-scoring defenseman in the history of the National Hockey League (NHL) upon his retirement in 1988.

The youngest son of Armand Jean Potvin and Lucille St. Louis, Potvin learned to skate by the age of three. His father had constructed a makeshift ice rink in the backyard that flooded and froze over during the long Ottawa winters. A civil servant in the Department of Supply and Services, Armand Potvin had himself entertained hopes of playing in the NHL, but a broken back suffered in training camp with the Detroit Red Wings ended his dream.

Disappointed but undaunted, Armand Potvin passed his love of hockey, as well as his skates, on to his three sons. Potvin recalled that by the time he acquired the skates from his older brothers, they were "all broken down [and] had no insulation.… I had to sprinkle pepper into them to keep my feet warm."

Under the tutelage of his father and one of his older brothers, Jean, Potvin became an accomplished hockey player by the time he was ten years old. He later credited both his parents and his brothers, not only with enabling him to develop his hockey skills, but also with bracing him to endure the anxiety and disappointment that were a normal part of life in the NHL. "There was plenty of love and emotion in our family but very little pity," Potvin recounted in his autobiography.

At thirteen Potvin signed with the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). Joining the team in 1968 reunited him with Jean, who knew from the outset that as a hockey player his younger brother "was special, a guy with no limits." Playing the aggressive, physical style he had learned in pick-up games against older boys, Potvin soon became one of the most intimidating defensemen in the OHA.

Although he accumulated 800 penalty minutes during his tenure in the OHA, Potvin's rugged play was hardly his only asset. In five seasons with the 67s (1968–1969 through 1972–1973), he totaled 329 points, scoring 95 goals and recording 234 assists in only 254 games. Voted a First-Team All-Star three times (1971, 1972, and 1973), Potvin's 123 points on 35 goals and 88 assists during the 1972–1973 campaign shattered Bobby Orr's league record of 94 (38 goals, 56 assists) for a defenseman—a record set in 1965–1966 when Orr was a member of the Oshawa Generals. Orr, however, had accomplished this feat in only 47 games; it took Potvin 61. Late in his career, Potvin reflected on the mixed blessing of being forever compared to Orr. "It was a heck of a compliment," he said, "but after a while you say, 'But I did it … I did it!'"

Trying to live up to his exalted reputation and his lucrative three-year $1.2 million contract, the nineteen-year-old Potvin put tremendous pressure on himself to succeed when he arrived in the NHL in 1973. As a result his play was unusually tentative and his behavior uncharacteristically erratic. On one occasion he overslept, missed the team bus, and failed to arrive at the arena in time for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The media immediately portrayed him as "spoiled," "immature," "overpaid," and "undermotivated." Stung by the criticism, Potvin goaded himself to excel with a relentless determination. Yet his unyielding tenacity and voluble self-confidence only alienated his teammates. Potvin exacerbated this disaffection by criticizing their play once his own began to improve.

Controversies notwithstanding, Potvin's rookie season (1973–1974) was a triumph. Edging out Tom Lysiak of the Atlanta Flames and Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he became the first defenseman since Orr to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year. With Potvin's arrival, the Islanders record also improved from 12 wins, 60 losses, and 6 ties in 1972–1973 to 19 wins, 41 losses, and 18 ties in 1973–1974. During the 1974–1975 season Potvin led the Islanders to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, upsetting both the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Flyers.

Potvin garnered First-Team All-Star honors in 1975, and the following season received the first of three Norris Trophies as the best defenseman in the NHL, unseating Orr, who, between 1968 and 1975, had enjoyed a monopoly on the award. Potvin won the Norris twice more in 1978 and 1979 and was runner-up in 1975 and 1981. He was voted a First-Team All-Star four more times, in 1976, 1978, 1979, and 1981, and was a Second-Team All-Star in 1977 and 1984. Known as "The Navigator" for the smooth efficiency with which he directed the Islanders power play, Potvin, along with coach Al Arbour and teammates Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, Billy Smith, John Tonelli, and Bryan Trottier, guided the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup championships between 1980 and 1983.

According to Arbour, Potvin was "like a monument" who provided the Islanders with "a bottomless well of poise." Writing in The Sporting News, Tim Moriarity described the six-foot, 205-pound defenseman as having "the look of eagles in his blue eyes. He has a square face, a strong chin, and shoulders that appear to be two ax handles wide." The pugnacity Potvin displayed on the ice, however, contrasted sharply with the reserved demeanor he tried to exhibit in public.

Maintaining such decorum was not always easy. In an editorial published on 25 October 1976, sportswriter Red Fisher of the Montreal Star called Potvin an "insufferable crybaby." A crescendo of boos greeted him in one arena after another, and more than once the intelligent, articulate, and brusque Potvin incurred the wrath of his teammates for his tactless critiques of their play. Only when he apologized to them in a locker-room meeting held during the 1976 season did Potvin at last gain a measure of acceptance and respect. "I think it was the beginning of putting our [championship] team together," Arbour declared. In an interview with the New York Times in 1985, when Potvin was in the twilight of his career, he explained that "there was a constant battle inside me to keep up the level of intensity I knew I needed to do what everyone expected of me.… It didn't mean I thought I was better than everyone else."

Potvin also endured his share of trouble off the ice. His father's prolonged battle with cancer and a bitter divorce from his first wife, Deborah, whom he had married in 1974, left him emotionally spent. His play became inconsistent, and in 1982–1983 he suffered through his worst season, netting only twelve goals in sixty-nine games. He performed splendidly in the playoffs, though, helping the Islanders secure their fourth and last Stanley Cup.

When he retired following the 1987–1988 season, Potvin was the highest-scoring defenseman in the history of the NHL, having totaled 1,052 points (310 goals, 742 assists) in 1,060 games. On 20 December 1985 he surpassed Orr, collecting his 916th career point. Although numerous defensemen have since eclipsed Potvin's mark, he was justifiably proud of the accomplishment. At the same time he showed a becoming modesty that had been absent earlier in his career. Noting that Orr, beset by injuries, had played only nine full seasons in the NHL, Potvin told reporters that the scoring record did not "mean that I'm better than Bobby Orr, just that I scored more points."

Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991, Potvin has been a broadcaster for the Florida Panthers since the inception of the franchise in 1993. He married his second wife, former model Valerie Cates, with whom he resides in Lighthouse, Florida, with their son and two daughters. An avid traveler and sportsman, Potvin fishes, collects art and antiques, reads voraciously, and is addicted to working crossword puzzles.

The same careful preparation and hard work that distinguished Potvin's hockey career have also made him successful in business. He became a partner in People & Properties, an entertainment marketing company, at the age of twenty-two, and began selling commercial real estate and pursuing investment opportunities before his retirement.

Stan Fischler, who collaborated with Potvin on his autobiography, characterized him as "a marvelous, Renaissance man" who has a "grasp of the world around him and [a] genuine, insatiable interest in everything from the arts to the subway system of New York." Potvin, of course, was first and foremost a hockey player. At the height of his career from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, he was the finest defenseman in the NHL. On an Islanders club that did not want for talent, Potvin remained the most important and indispensable man.

Potvin's autobiography, written with Stan Fischler, is Power on Ice (1977). Additional material on Potvin's career can be found in Mark Evenson, New York Islanders (1995). See also Stan Fischler, "Franchise Histories: New York Islanders," and Gary Mason, "NHL History: 99 and 66, 1979–80 to 1991–92," both in Dan Diamond, et al., Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Hockey League (1998).

Mark G. Malvasim