Potvin immortalized with a 30-year-old blue line

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

It's the question you're asked most when you take someone to his or her first New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. "What'd they just say?" Whether it comes from a 5-year-old boy in a child-sized Nigel Dawes jersey or from a first date you met on Match.com, every MSG first-timer wants to know what the blueshirted masses are shouting to the rafters of the World's Most Famous Arena.

"I don't think it has anything to do with me anymore."
Former Islander Denis Potvin
Listen carefully, and you'll hear: Three syllables, two simple words that capture the pure, undistilled essence of 30 years of New York Rangers hockey: "POTVIN SUCKS!" For three decades, Rangers fans have been chanting "POTVIN SUCKS!" at the Garden. But why? What could prompt such a prolonged pattern of behavior? Who could inspire this tribute? For the answer, look no further than Long Island, home of the archrival New York Islanders. Look to their former captain, Hall of Fame defenseman and the cornerstone of the Isles' four Stanley Cups. Look to a 55-year-old hockey announcer who last skated in the NHL when Ronald Reagan was president. Look to Number 5. Denis Charles Potvin. Feb. 25 marks the 30th anniversary of the event that spawned the now legendary chant, which has "graced" the Garden for just about every Rangers game since. "POTVIN SUCKS!" — as indelicate as it may be — remains one of hockey's more storied, if obscure, traditions. Granted, it's a lot less dignified than the post-playoff series handshake. And it's a lot less messy than an octopus landing splat on the ice at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. But "POTVIN SUCKS!" is hockey. And it is New York.

1979: Hookers and hockey

In 1979, Manhattan wasn't the same place it is now. Smack dealers and CBGB were on Bowery, not a John Varvatos store and a Whole Foods market selling mangos and papaya. Times Square wasn't lined with a Disney Store and TGIFridays; it was lined with peep shows and hookers and drug dealers, a portal to the city's seamier pursuits. But just a few blocks south, hockey was alive and well at the Garden. Though the Rangers hadn't won a Stanley Cup title in 39 years, they were playoff bound, led by an amalgam of North American mainstays mixed with a new touch of European flair. Out on the Island, meanwhile, the seven-year-old New York Islanders franchise was considered the most talented, most complete team in the NHL. After disappointing early playoff exits at the hands of the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens in the 1975-76 and '76-77 seasons, the young Isles dropped a heartbreaking seven-game series in overtime of the '77-78 quarterfinals to Toronto. By 1979, they were seasoned, playoff tested, and working on all cylinders. Bryan Trottier was having an MVP season, second-year man Mike Bossy was lighting up the league to the tune of 69 goals, and the consensus was that this was the year the Islanders would finally break through in the postseason. That opinion was not shared by the Rangers or their fans, who didn't care much for the boys from the 'burbs coming into the Garden and beating up on the Blueshirts. The Islander die-hards, meanwhile, didn't appreciate the big brother/little brother mentality from the Rangers fans at the other end of the LIRR. Think Yankees-Mets or Giants-Jets, but with eye gouging, street fights, and about 10 more meetings per year. Len Berman, New York's longtime local NBC sports anchor, remembers it well. "I remember Sal Marchiano and I hosted a special on Channel 2 when the Islanders played the Rangers in the playoffs, but we couldn't come up with a clever name," he said. "We needed the hockey equivalent of Subway Series, and my 'Parkway Playoff' got shot down. So we settled on something like 'New York, New York.' "I remember walking into the 'red seats' [lower-level seats] with a camera crew at the Garden. We were interviewing fans about the series and the level of 'venom' was higher than anything else I've come across since. Ranger fans truly hated the Islanders." Rangers-Isles was more than just a hockey rivalry, though. It was a clash of cultures. And at that time it seemed to define the two different fan bases and their respective worlds. "The Rangers-Islanders rivalry rose to the level of being of interest to non-sports fans," says Berman. "That's extremely rare in hockey. Especially in this town." Jonathan Mahler, author of the critically acclaimed book about late '70's New York "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning" explains the relationship. "Well, it's certainly the case that the city's dire straits — the grafitti-bruised subways, the soaring crime, the burning tenements — somehow raised the intensity of New Yorkers' relationships with their sports teams," he said. "Things just felt more personal. Plus, just like the city itself, sporting events felt a little bit out of control. I mean, recall that when Chris Chambliss hit the walk-off home run against the Royals in '76, he wasn't even able to get to home plate because he was mobbed by the mass of humanity that had swarmed onto the field." Against this backdrop, the already passionate Rangers-Islanders rivalry was about to ascend to a new level.

Down goes Nilsson

On the evening of Feb. 25, 1979, in a typical midseason slugfest, Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin delivered a hip check to Rangers' first-year forward Ulf Nilsson. The flashy Nilsson, a symbol of great hope for the Rangers faithful when signed away from the WHA's Winnipeg Jets along with fellow Swede Anders Hedberg, broke his ankle on the play and was sidelined for the rest of the season. New York Daily News hockey writer Lawrie Mifflin described the scene in the next morning's paper: "With about 1:20 left in the (first) period, Ranger fans saw a sight to enrage them, when Potvin splattered Nilsson against the boards in the left corner. The Swedish center crumpled to the ice and after a hushed delay, his teammates waved for a stretcher. It wasn't needed after all, as (Phil) Esposito and Nick Fotiu helped Ulf off the ice. He was then taken to Lenox Hospital for X-rays." Nilsson blamed a rut in the ice for his injury. "... the ice was never great in the Garden because they had basketball and other events," he told George Vecsey of The New York Times this week. "My foot got caught. It was a freak thing. The Ranger fans were so frustrated." The check, one that even then-Rangers coach Fred Shero would later describe as a clean play, brought out the collective anger of Rangers fans. Almost organically, the "POTVIN SUCKS!" chant began to rain down from the blue seats rimming the upper edges of the Garden. The Rangers won the game, 3-2. Amazingly, without Nilsson, they went on to upset the Islanders in the playoffs later that spring. But they lost to Montreal in the finals, leaving Ranger fans to wonder how the Blueshirts would have fared with a healthy Nilsson. Though the Isles would regroup and reel off four straight Stanley Cups from '80-'83, the 1978-79 campaign still stung Islander diehards to the core. It was one thing to lose to Montreal or Toronto. But the Rangers? It was a heartbreaker.
Throughout the early '80s, the organ at MSG would continue to play the popular arena tune "Let's Go Band." Regardless of the opponent — whether it were the hated Islanders or a non-rival like the Winnipeg Jets — Rangers fans would punctuate the end of the tune with a choir-like refrain of "POTVIN SUCKS!" In the mid-'80s, Garden management wanted to clean up the Rangers' gameday experience and stopped playing "Let's Go Band." Rangers fans noticed, and started to whistle the tune on their own — punctuating their grassroots version with a "POTVIN SUCKS!" holler at the end. It was the classic case of "You can take away our toy, but we'll still find a way to play." "You've got to realize," says longtime New York Post sports media columnist Phil Mushnick, "'POTVIN SUCKS' was viewed as an extremely vulgar chant at the time. You didn't use the word 'sucks' in your own home back then, and yet you'd take your kid to a Rangers game and he was being encouraged to scream it with 15,000 other rabid fans. "We're immune to it all now, which is sad, but back then this was an incredibly vile chant to hear in a sports arena. I hate to sound like a sap, but 15,000 fans scream vulgarities on any given night in an arena now. ... But back then, it was uniquely New York." It did get uglier than just "POTVIN SUCKS!" though. "Rangers fans were always chanting something," Mushnick says. "It was only natural that 'POTVIN SUCKS!' eventually evolved into 'Potvin Beats His Wife' or even worse. I'm no prude, but they'd chant things I wouldn't even feel comfortable saying to you now. Naturally, the fans would then get in fistfights over it. You know, I've never seen a hockey player get in a fistfight defending a fan, but with Rangers-Islanders — I've seen hundreds of fans get in brawls over their teams."

Potvin speaks - rarely

Potvin would retire as a player in 1988, the Rangers would finally win a Cup in '94, and the NHL would eventually expand to a now head-scratching 30 teams. But through it all, "POTVIN SUCKS!" never went away. On any given night, you'll hear the chant at least a few times from somewhere in the Garden. But what of the recipient of such long-standing ire? What of The Man himself? Potvin, the color commentator for the Florida Panthers since 1993, has turned down several interview requests on the subject, calling it a "no-win" situation. But at Tuesday's Panthers-Bruins game, he spoke with beat writer George Richards of The Miami Herald. ''It's become pretty interesting and I can't believe it's gotten to this point,'' Potvin said. "It's a chant now that I think fans figure helps fire up the Rangers." Potvin will be back at the Garden on Thursday night — a day after the anniversary, doing the Panthers-Rangers broadcast. He'll no doubt hear his name shouted at some point in the evening. Of course, many of the fans screaming it probably won't know he's actually there or even what he looks like. "I don't think it has anything to do with me anymore,'' Potvin said, an opinion shared by Rangers fan Bret Sherak of Manhattan, who was only a year old when Potvin checked Nilsson in '79. "It hasn't been about Denis Potvin for years," Sherak says. "It's about tradition. It's about all the years of frustration and all the year — no plural — of joy with this team. "I'm not sure if the players, coaches, or management realize it, but 'POTVIN SUCKS!' isn't about that one guy or even the Islanders at all. It's evolved from something about an Islander player cheapshotting a Ranger to something that brings all of us Rangers fans together on a nightly basis. It's just about tradition. Things can change all the time — and with this squad, they always do. But 'POTVIN SUCKS!'? We know it isn't going anywhere. As a fan, that's pretty cool." As for that Rangers-Islanders rivalry now? It still exists. "The games between these two teams always are still the most intense of the season," says New York Newsday Islanders beat writer Gregory Logan. "And yes, the fans still hate each other. Just check the back-and-forth arguments on the blogs that are infuriating because they have no end." Jason Greenberg, a 27-year-old Islanders fan from Bellmore, N.Y., is a prime example of that. "Life was so much better before the Rangers won that fluke of a Stanley Cup in 1994," he says. "The way they cringed when we did the '1940' chant is how it should have been forever. Now, they use that one year as a reason to somehow be smug towards us. Of course, if you take a look at the past 59 years, we've still got a 4-1 edge on them. POTVIN SUCKS!? No, no, no. The Rangers suck. They suck mightily." Alas, with what feels like Year 20 of an Islanders rebuilding period entering this season's fifth month, and with the Rangers' recent firing of their coach, it's fair to say the teams and their rivalry have seen better days. Neither squad has played in a Stanley Cup final since 1994. In truth, it's the New Jersey Devils — the third team in a 50-mile radius — that's had the most success over the past two decades. "The Potvin chant has stood the test of time and they still shout it at the Garden as loudly as ever," says Scott Ferrall, a host on Sirius Satellite Radio's Howard 101. "But the fact is New York hockey is mostly hype now. Besides that run in '94, the Rangers never finish. They never threaten to win the Cup anymore and are always an easy out in the playoffs when they get in. The Islanders, meanwhile, are so pathetic they might as well fold up and move. No one cares about them anymore. "In truth, the Devils are the soundest franchise of the three in the tri-state area and the only ones worth really taking seriously. They've won three Stanley Cups and are always contending for another. They have clearly been the best team this year and they've done it without Martin Brodeur. The other two aren't doing any damage in the playoffs this year or any year in the near future." But while the Devils win Stanley Cups or contend for conference titles seemingly every year, their accomplishments take a back seat whenever the Rangers and Islanders renew their rivalry. "We don't like the Devils. But the Rangers and their fans are just plain intolerable," notes Islanders die-hard Greenberg. "We hate both the Isles and the Devils. And the Flyers and Bruins, too. But the Islanders are by far the worst of the bunch," laughs Sherak, a Rangers fan. So, if you ever happen to catch an Islanders-Rangers game in person, pay attention. You'll no doubt hear the whistling and the "POTVIN SUCKS!" chant, an enduring backbeat that has persevered for 30 years, and probably will still be chanted three decades from now. Now that's tradition. And that doesn't suck.
Tagged: Canadiens, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Maple Leafs, Coyotes, Panthers, Martin Brodeur, Nigel Dawes

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