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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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"I grew up looking at the Forum like a shrine," Potvin says. "The Canadiens were a tradition. I was raised with the Canadiens. When I talked about a hockey jersey, it was a Canadien jersey. When it was Wednesday, it was stay-at-home-and-watch-the-game day. And Saturday night it was watch them again. It was a ritual. They were as much a part of my life as eating meat and mashed potatoes. When I went there it was scary. I wasn't playing for them, I was playing against them. I couldn't even handle the puck."

The Orr complex was different, Potvin says, but it had the same effect. "It was an individual thing with Orr," he says. "I grew up looking at him, and seeing what he was doing, and knowing that he was exactly what I wanted to be. I'd lived with this since I was 14. Maybe the head-to-head confrontation, in an uncomfortable surrounding like Boston, was too much. I thought more of the confrontation than I did of the game. I sensed it coming but I couldn't do anything about it. I was afraid, I was shaking, and I kept telling myself that once I get on the ice and get my first hit, everything will be out of the way. But it didn't happen that easy. It was too deep-rooted. I knew I wasn't playing well in Boston and Montreal. I could never understand it. I was playing with my legs and stick rather than my head. Every game I was held back somehow. It's like reaching—and having your arms be too short. The more I worked, the shorter and shorter the arms got. I could never understand it."

As things turned out, it was the matter of Orr that brought Potvin's personality problems with the Islanders to a head and, ultimately, to a resolution. In the fall of 1976, following the Canada Cup games, Potvin wrote an article for The Canadian, a Saturday supplement to the Toronto Star, in which he praised Orr but insisted that he, Potvin, had outplayed Orr in Canada's 3-1 victory over the Soviet Union and deserved the MVP Award more than Orr, who won it.

Resch, among other Islanders, was aghast. "There was just no reason on earth to say the things that Denis said about Orr," Resch says. "I was so mad at him I could hardly talk to him. It was Orr's last hurrah and all the players knew it. Denny was going to have many more chances."

Wrath descended upon Potvin from everywhere, and old resentments among teammates surfaced.

"I didn't want dissension," Potvin says. "I had confidence in myself. It seemed no one wanted to help me get on the right track, so I had to do it myself. I got myself into that hold, and I worked myself out of it. No help from anybody. My interest in doing it was for the team, because I felt that if there was that kind of dissension, certain guys were going to carry it onto the ice. You can't avoid it."

So, one day that fall of 1976, a few weeks after the Canada Cup, Potvin stood up and faced the Islanders in the dressing room at their practice rink on Long Island.

"Standing up in that room, well, it was something I had a tough time doing," Potvin says. "I could hardly express what I was saying. But I battled everything to get it out because I knew what I wanted to say."

Which was that he was sorry. "He just poured himself out," says Westfall. "He said, 'I have done some things that made you look bad, mostly made myself look bad, and I'm here now to apologize for anything I have said or done that embarrassed any of you. I'm struggling with the thing. I'm doing my best to correct it. I made my mistakes. I can't be persecuted the rest of my life for something I did three years ago.'

"What he was saying was, 'Look, I may need a little help, I'm trying like hell, I don't want to make the same mistakes again. I'm very aware of what I've done. I know what it meant to you fellows. I'm going to try to make it up.' " Potvin's apologia is regarded as the turning point in the fortunes of the Islanders. "I think it was the beginning of putting our team together," Arbour says.

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