They don’t make ’em like Denis Potvin anymore. He was drafted first overall in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft by the New York Islanders, a then-struggling organization, who just came from a season where they became the worst team in NHL history.
He entered the league with high expectations, and he didn’t disappoint. He won the Calder Trophy in his rookie year (1973-74), and just two years later, he won his first Norris Trophy. Bobby Orr had won the trophy eight straight years until the 23-year-old Potvin ended his reign.
Potvin was looked upon as the savior of the Islanders’ franchise, and in many regards, it’s correct. Potvin went on to win the Norris Trophy two more times, and he became one of the biggest stars in the Islanders super dynasty that won the Stanley Cup four times in the early ’80s.
If Bobby Orr was a new kind of defenseman who skated better than anyone and who could dance around opponents, Potvin was more of the traditional kind. He was great physically, but he still managed to average just under one point per game over his career.
Playing in the NHL during that time was different, with tough guys and fighters everywhere and a harder playstyle overall. Potvin played against some of the toughest guys the league has ever seen, but he was always rock-hard.
In an interview with The Score some years ago, he was asked about who hit him the hardest during his career, and his answer was surprising, to say the least.
Potvin never played with another team other than the Islanders, still, he claimed the hardest hits he absorbed during his years both were from teammates, and one in even practice.
”I got hurt twice, and one of them was when Bryan Trottier and I were trying to hit the same guy,” he said.
”We both missed him, and he just ran me over. That was probably the hardest hit I ever had. One time, Clark Gillies and I were reaching for the puck in practice and we collided. I think that was about as hard as I’ve ever been hit. Clark was an awfully big boy.”
Potvin has one special memory when it comes to actual games and hits from opponents.
”As far as being really rocked in a game, Bobby Plager caught me pretty good in St. Louis. It was a low hip check. I kind of spun up in the air and landed back on my butt, and instead of looking up the ice, I was looking back at Billy Smith. (laughs) I think that was about as solid a check as I ever got as a pro.”