Denis Potvin's 30-year serenade
Former Islander Denis Potvin may be the most enduring villain in sports
Rangers fans still chant "Potvin sucks!" 30 years after his hit on Ulf Nilsson
The chant is now a bond, though some young fans are unsure of who Potvin was
Madison Square Garden is an unforgiving place. Just ask any of the current Rangers, who have heard plenty of boos and catcalls during their recent slide. And anyone who has ever worn the uniform can attest to the tireless zest and crude genius of Rangers fans when it comes to voicing their displeasure. But no one really knows that ire better than a certain Hall of Fame defenseman who once played for the local rival Islanders.
It was 30 years ago -- on February 25, 1979 -- that Denis Potvin laid a hefty check, clean by all accounts, on Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson, who broke his ankle in the ensuing fall. And yet, the Garden faithful still hasn't forgotten or forgiven. Thirty years since Potvin struck, Ranger fans still chant a two-word combo that was born that fateful night: "Potvin sucks!"
If a great institutional memory has kept the chant alive, rendering Potvin perhaps the most enduring villain in sports history, imperfect human recollection has since twisted the incident that spawned it into grand hockey folklore.
"It was a dirty hit, a total cheap shot!" a group of Rangers fans recently insisted to this reporter. They spoke with great conviction -- as teenagers often do. If it weren't for the fact that they were born 15 years too late (and the clip hasn't yet made it onto YouTube), you'd swear they saw it first-hand with their very own eyes. But this is how legends are born. In the telling and retelling of a story, like an arena-wide game of telephone, some things just get lost in the mix.
"Yeah, it's because Felix Potvin was an Islander, right?" said another fan who gave his age (24) but not his name.
In fact, Felix did play 33 games for the Isles in 1999 -- in goal -- but if anything, you'd think his 3.35 GAA and .893 save percentage would be something Ranger fans would cheer not jeer.
No, the Potvin in question never actually sucked. Quite the contrary. The ideal combination of offensive skill and sheer physical grit, Denis Potvin set new standards for defensemen, scoring 310 career goals and becoming the first NHL blueliner to top 1,000 points (he recorded 1,052 during his 15 seasons). He could score with a rocket-launcher wrist shot from the blue line, but even more than that, he could hit.
"The hardest I've ever been hit in my life was by Denis Potvin," says former Ranger center Phil Esposito. "Back in 1979, he cross-checked me [in front of the net], and I'm gonna tell you what, my back was never the same."
For those who played against the 6'0", 210-pound Islanders captain, it's a common story. Nilsson was never quite the same after the hit he absorbed, either. By his telling, his skate got caught on the ice when Potvin came barreling in.
"I remember the play very well," says Chico Resch, who was in net for the Islanders that night. "Ulfie Nilsson was a smaller, Swedish centerman, really nifty with the puck, could razzle-dazzle. . . And the big butt of Denis Potvin caught him down in the corner and, boom! There was no surprise that he crunched some bones."
To understand why the chant resulted, and its longevity, you need some knowledge of the rivalry. The Rangers, one of the Original Six, had long been the only name in hockey in the New York area until 1972, when a ragtag expansion team set up shop in nearby Uniondale, Long Island. Two years of abysmal play paid off with draft picks. With future Hall of Famers such as Potvin (first overall, 1973), Clark Gillies (4th, '74), Bryan Trottier (22nd, '74) -- and later Mike Bossy (15th, '77) -- joining the ranks, the Isles grew into a juggernaut while the Rangers continued to struggle for the old silver Cup they'd last held aloft in 1940.
Still, the Blueshirts owned New York. It didn't matter how well the Islanders were playing. Says former Rangers GM Neil Smith: "I remember when I was with the Islanders [as a pro scout], having to listen to Dave Maloney, the captain of the Rangers on WINS 1010 talking about if he thinks his club is going to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Islanders were in first overall in the entire league, and nobody interviewed them. Nobody talked to them; they only cared about how the Rangers were going to be."
Potvin's hit was the tipping point for a rivalry that brewed ferociously for the next 10 years or more. "It was at a point, where whether the hit was legal or not -- and I think it was -- had no bearing on how it was going to be viewed by both sides," Resch says. "Playing the Rangers was never like another game. If you just threw a little more hip, a little more shoulder, maybe a little more elbow or, in Billy Smith's case, a little more wood into one of the Rangers, you didn't feel bad. You didn't. And you know what? That's the way it should be.
"At the time, it was viewed by Rangers fans and maybe even us, that if you knocked out Nilsson, you'd also knock out [Anders] Hedberg," Resch continues. "Nilsson and Hedberg were synonymous, like Bossy and Trottier for us. So knocking out one, you were seemingly taking down both. But in a regular season game like this, there was no talk of, we gotta get Nilsson. There were probably other guys higher on the list than him, you know?"
Nevertheless, from then on, whenever the Garden organist played the ditty Let's Go Band! thousands of Ranger fans capped it with the two words that captured their frustration: "Potvin sucks!" That is, until even more unsavory versions ultimately silenced the tune in the late '80s as the Garden tried -- somewhat in vain -- to muzzle it most vulgar voices. But leave it to resourceful New Yorkers to make do. Fans began whistling the tune and their fellow blue-seaters obliged with the coda.
"Sometimes, if I'm drunk enough and I'm feeling like we need it, I'll whistle," says 24-year-old Franco Piro, a lifelong Ranger fan. "And everybody plays along."
Even though many don't really know what they're chanting about.
"I honestly have no idea," says Paul Ciaravino, 28. Adds blue seat season-ticket holder Matt Kitt: "It's because he got them all those Cups."
For Garden gnomes, "Potvin sucks!" was a retaliatory cry against the success of the Islanders and their four successive championships as well as a response to "1940!" -- the chant that haunted the Rangers until 1994.
"In a sort of backhanded way, [the chant] was such a big compliment to Denis," says Neil Smith. "You know, the fact that one player, after 37 years of the team being in existence, that one player has come to symbolize the franchise now."
Potvin, who now does broadcasting for the Florida Panthers (they visit the Garden on Thursday, Feb. 26), declined to be interviewed for this story, but he has made light of his three-decade MSG legacy.
"I think what they're actually saying is 'Potvin's Cups' and would hold up four fingers," he said with a wry smile on TSN's Off The Record in 2007.
"It's just one of those things that's passed from one generation to the next, I guess," he told the New York Times in 2006. "Kind of like season tickets."
Years of enduring such a chant certainly requires a sense of humor, and from the look of it, the words never really affected Potvin's play -- at least not negatively. "Any athlete will tell you, after a while, it does put a little more jump in your skates," Resch says. "Because he is playing in the Garden, he's not going to give them the satisfaction of a poor performance."
Despite the tradition, there are plenty of Ranger fans who would like to see the chant retired. "I think it's passé," says Toni Agovino, 48, a blue seat season-ticket holder for 15 years. "It was okay back then, but I think it's time to hang it up."
Phil Esposito agrees. "Get over it already," he says.
But for many, the chant has come to mean more than an angry rant at a villain who is now no more than a ghost. It means more than a general distaste for Long Island. It's now a part of what it means to be a Rangers fan.
Wherever and whenever Lets Go Band! is played, listen carefully and you'll likely hear at least a handful of voices cry out "Potvin sucks!" It's timeless and ubiquitous, like the mating call of birds. And it will likely always be in the air.