February 27, 2009


Denis Potvin's 30-year serenade (Sarah Kwak, 2/25/09, Sports Illustrated)

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.

One peculiarity of the great Islander teams was that it was their best players who were their enforcers. Not only was Potvin a beast but Clark Gillies was even bigger and just as brutal when the occasion required, plus Brian Trottier was perfectly happy to mix it up and Billy Smith--a goalie for cripessake--was a borderline psychopath. When they got good they were supplanting the notoriously dirty Flyers and there were a few games where the elders tried intimidating the upstarts, but in Game 5 of the '75 playoffs, Gillies served notice on Dave "The Hammer" Schultz and not only did the Flyers pass the torch rather meekly from there on but no one else in the NHL wanted to start fights when that group was on the ice either.

That made it possible, a couple seasons later, for the Islanders to draft Mike Bossy who was a finesse player, put him on a line (El Trio Grande) with Trottier and Gillies--and Potvin back then played nearly the entire game--so teams couldn't go after the slender scorer.

If it weren't so humiliating, Rangers fans might also recall Gillies breaking the jaw of their "enforcer," Ed "Boxcar" Hospodar.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2009 12:14 PM
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