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UNDAUNTED AND UNHAUNTED
William Nack
April 16, 1979
It has taken him six long and trying years, but Denis Potvin finally has rid himself of the ghosts of Bobby Orr and the Montreal Forum
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April 16, 1979

Undaunted And Unhaunted

It has taken him six long and trying years, but Denis Potvin finally has rid himself of the ghosts of Bobby Orr and the Montreal Forum

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It was heady tonic to be 14 and the second Orr. But Potvin soon tired of the comparison. "It was constant," he says. "Anytime I did something in the juniors, I heard 'Orr did it...Orr did it...Orr did it.' It was a heck of a compliment, but after a while you say, 'But I did it...I did it!' It was tough. I let it get to me for a long time."

Potvin certainly never did anything on the ice to discourage the comparison. By the time he was 15, the media had made him a public figure, and by the time he was 19—when the Islanders made him the No. 1 choice in the 1973 amateur draft—he was a celebrity, a star. The Islanders had just concluded their first season in the NHL, winning but 12 of 78 games. Potvin was hailed as the savior who would make them a winner.

"He was a kid," says Westfall. "He was still only 20 years of age, no matter how much better he was than guys who had been playing 15 years and were 35. It was a big adjustment for him. He was under tremendous pressure."

Potvin found trouble early, and it tracked him off and on for almost four years. "I was pretty cocky when I came up," Potvin says. "I'd been a superstar all my life. And I mean, it wasn't my job to keep me happy. People wanted to do that so I could play well. So I figured, 'Why should that change? Why was it that people didn't care anymore whether or not I was happy?' "

They didn't care because, aside from finding Potvin gifted and special as a hockey player, they also perceived him to be selfish, insensitive and tactlessly critical of others. He wanted things done the way he wanted things done.

"When he first came up and would say and do the things he did," says Islander Goalie Glenn Resch, "guys would say, 'Who the hell is that?' "

"Denis had decided, in his eagerness, to try and be mature very quickly," says Westfall. "He alienated himself and, well, some of the toughest critics are not the media but the players themselves. Denis is an aggressive hockey player. He was aggressive in his personality, and that got him into trouble."

Trouble was as easy as icing the puck in those days. Uniondale, the home of the Islanders, lies about 35 miles east of Manhattan, in the middle of one of the nation's most populous suburbs. Most of the other young Islanders came from small rural communities in western Canada. They adapted easily and readily to suburban life. Denis was a city guy. He grew up within minutes of downtown Ottawa, and favored the museums and lights of Manhattan to the lawns and lamps of Long Island. This was all well and good, of course, until the day he openly praised the cultural virtues of the city and wondered why his fellow Islanders didn't share his enthusiasm. His teammates bristled. He felt more isolated than ever, and relationships became even more strained.

"My interest in the city and the fact that I expressed it made people a little shaky," Potvin says. "I felt like an outcast. Very alone."

Not that his hockey suffered appreciably. While learning and maturing as a defenseman, Potvin grew increasingly productive on offense the first three years—from 17 goals and 37 assists for 54 points in 1973-74 to 21 goals and 55 assists for 76 points in 1974-75 to 31 goals and 67 assists for 98 points in 1975-76. His only bad games, it seemed, came in the Boston Garden, where Orr was playing, and in the Montreal Forum, where Potvin felt he was in another world.

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