The Art of Sport with Denis Potvin

By Alfred Santasiere III

March 27, 2015 — In addition to my Art of Sport feature with Wayne Gretzky, there will be a Q&A with New York Islanders legend and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Potvin in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine

When I interviewed Gretzky last September, The Great One mentioned that Potvin was the most difficult player he faced on the ice. As I was trying to come up with a hockey player to feature in second Art of Sport in the April Issue, I shared that Gretzky quote about Potvin with my closest friend, Matthew Shauger.

Shauger, who is a lifelong hockey fan, strongly suggested that I attempt to set up an interview with Potvin. With the Islanders playing in their final season at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, featuring Potvin seemed like a great idea. A few weeks before our print deadline, the Florida Panthers — whom Potvin is an announcer for — played a late-season game at Madison Square Garden. On the morning of that contest, I met Potvin at Shula’s Steak House in Manhattan for breakfast, and I quickly realized that my friend’s idea was a stroke of genius.

During our nearly three-hour conversation, I told Potvin that Gretzky considered him to be his toughest opponent.

“That’s very flattering,” Potvin said with a huge smile. “That’s nice to hear.”

Potvin then discussed the challenge of facing Gretzky.

“Playing against Gretzky was like a scene from a book,” Potvin said. “It was like trying to find something through a heavy mist. He had an innate ability to move the puck at the right time. He knew that I was always trying to hit him, but I never got a good check on him. Of all the guys I tried to get a good hit on during my career, Gretzky’s the only one I never got. He was an incredible competitor, and he changed the game of hockey.”

I also asked Potvin to rank his Islanders teams from the early ’80s that won four consecutive Stanley Cup championships before losing to Gretzky’s Oilers in the 1984 Finals.

“We were the best hockey team that’s ever played the game,” Potvin said. “No other team ever won 19 consecutive Stanley Cup playoff series, and no team is ever going to do that. The Montreal Canadiens won five in a row in the ’50s, but we had to win four playoff rounds in each of our championship seasons. In the four years that we won, we only played in one elimination game. We’re a lot like Don Shula’s 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins for the simple fact that we did what no other team could ever do.”

As I interviewed Potvin in Midtown Manhattan, only a few blocks away from Madison Square Garden, I was compelled to ask him about the chant that New York Rangers fans began more than 35 years ago and which is still heard today.

“It’s amazing that they’re still chanting ‘Potvin sucks,’” he said. “But it doesn’t bother me at all. A friend of mine was at a Rangers game recently when the chant began. He leaned over to a young kid who was chanting “Potvin sucks” and asked, “Who is Potvin?” The kid said, “I don’t know, but I think he died.” My daughter heard the chant at a rodeo at Madison Square Garden, and I heard it at the old Yankee Stadium during the 2003 World Series and at Giants Stadium during a football game. The same chant was a lot more threatening 35 years ago, when Rangers fans were throwing full beer bottles at our bus. These days, it’s almost mystical.”

At the end of the interview, I asked Potvin about the arena he called home for 15 seasons.

“It used to be called “Fort Neverlose,” and we had a tremendous level of confidence every time we took the ice there,” the former defenseman said. “The crowd was on top of you, and the fans were rabid during the playoff years. It was as good a building as I’ve played in, and that includes the Montreal Forum and the Maple Leaf Gardens. They were more legendary arenas, but for us, there was no better home than the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. I’m certainly going to miss it.”

— Alfred Santasiere III

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