The image of Bobby Orr no longer looms over Denis Potvin in the Boston Garden. The Montreal Forum, which used to intimidate Potvin to the point that he could actually feel his arms grow shorter when he played there, is now just another ice house. And the days of confusion, turmoil and alienation, seasons in which he painfully learned the rudiments of humility, teamwork and tact, lie behind him now as certainly as they lay before him six years ago. Forget all the old ghosts that attended him. Denis Potvin has survived himself and finally arrived. Nearing the prime of his career, the 25-year-old defenseman of the New York Islanders has come of age.
He is unequivocally the finest at his position in the NHL today. On a team that doesn't want for talent, Potvin has emerged as its single most important force. In Center Bryan Trottier, the Islanders have the highest scorer in the league—47 goals and 87 assists for 134 points—and in Mike Bossy, who led the league with 69 goals, they have a right wing with a shot quicker than even Guy Lafleur's. But the 6', 205-pound Potvin—dominating and controlling play, imposing himself upon the flow of the game at both ends of the ice—is the reason the Islanders beat the Canadiens in three of their four games this year and finished the regular season last Sunday as the No. 1 team in the NHL. He also is the reason, as Stanley Cup play gets under way this week, the Islanders could well put an end to the Canadiens' three-year stranglehold on the Cup.
Few teams have won the Stanley Cup, or even gotten as far as the finals, without a dominant defenseman who can take charge and govern the tempo of a game. Orr took the Boston Bruins to the finals three times. If not for Brad Park, the Bruins would not have made it to the finals the past two years. Larry Robinson was essential in Montreal's last three Stanley Cup victories.
Whether or not the Islanders win the Stanley Cup, this has been Potvin's year, his season of arrival as he scored 31 goals and 70 assists for 101 points, joining Orr as the only other defenseman ever to score more than 100 points.
"When Denis makes up his mind to be the best player on the ice, he is the best player on the ice," says teammate Ed Westfall, who played with Orr for six seasons in Boston. "Denis tends sometimes to lay back a little bit and maybe not put all his effort into it at all times, but when he makes up his mind, he is a master at the fundamentals of the game: he passes, he shoots, he skates and he checks. He just does it all."
Never did he do it all better than on March 22 in the Montreal Forum. Potvin gave a virtuoso performance—rushing the puck up the middle and down the side, headmanning the puck to the forwards to quicken the offensive flow, intercepting passes, checking everything that moved and finally, when the Islanders needed it most, scoring. With the game tied 3-3, Potvin hammered a slap shot past Ken Dryden for what turned out to be the winning goal.
"I could see it right away out there," Islander Coach Al Arbour said of Potvin's performance. "He became commanding. He took charge. Denis now is more commanding than he's ever been. Most of the teams that have won the Stanley Cup have had that big guy back there, like Robinson and Orr, to take charge. Denis is in their class, no doubt about it. He's just starting to take charge and he's going to get better at it."
Potvin's future was not always seen so clearly. There were days, and not too long ago, when he was very young and living a life alienated from most of the Islanders—alone, confused, depressed, outcast. And there were days when he was struggling on the ice to live up to what had always been predicted for him as a hockey player. He was burdened early with great expectations, and grew up with a vision of himself as broad and encompassing as the rinks on which he saw himself one day transcendent.
At 14, already regarded as a prodigy, Potvin played his first game in the Montreal Forum, before more than 15,000 fans. That year he also learned from reading newspapers that he was to be the second coming of Orr, who was still working at being the first. The compliment spurred him.
"Denis was a good hockey player at the beginning, but he never saw himself as something special," says his mother Lucille. "But the Orr thing hit him. He knew then that he was better than he thought he was."