Out of all this vintage crop, the most is expected from Denis Potvin, the mustached defenseman for the New York Islanders who celebrated his 20th birthday last week. This is the youngster who has been heralded as the second coming of Bobby Orr. Since Orrs do not occur twice, the advance billing would be an intolerable burden to Potvin if he believed it himself. Certainly he is being well paid to be the first Denis Potvin. He signed a three-year, $400,000 contract that guarantees him a weekly salary of $2,564, precisely $2,504 a week more than he earned last season while playing amateur hockey in Ottawa. As fringe benefits the dapper and articulate Potvin received a $16,500 Mercedes 450SL automobile, a quadriphonic sound system and a few roomsful of furniture from friendly merchants. Then he signed endorsement contracts with a soft-drink firm and a company that manufactures washer detergent. "The soap company holds these contests for housewives," Potvin says. "Every two or three weeks I go over and wash clothes for the winner. It's really a very good deal."
Somewhat surprisingly, Potvin has kept a sense of balance. "A man's attitude determines the success or the failure of his endeavors," he says, "and I simply will never permit my attitude to become negative about hockey. I can't forget something Orr told me this summer. We were sitting in his hotel suite in Montreal one night, waiting for room service to deliver steaks, when Bobby stopped the conversation and suddenly said to me, 'Denis, I've never seen you play, but I've heard a lot about you. Do me a favor, and do yourself a favor; when the season starts just play hockey and forget all the baloney that goes with it.' "
Despite heeding Orr's commandment, the 6', 205-pound Potvin has had a rough initiation into the NHL, for a variety of reasons. One hazard is the pressure exerted by audiences that expect him to perform like someone else. "I'm certainly not an Orr," Potvin says flatly. Indeed, while he handles the puck confidently and makes effective plays, Potvin obviously lacks Orr's breakaway speed and shiftiness. "Orr gets out of his own zone about twice as fast as Potvin," says Boston Defenseman Carol Vadnais. "Of course, Orr also gets out twice as fast as every other defenseman in the league." As a skater and a puck carrier, Potvin resembles Brad Park of the New York Rangers rather more than Orr.
Potvin also seems handicapped by the fact that he had to continue playing amateur hockey in Ottawa after learning all it could teach. "I don't want to sound cocky," he says, "but I still have it in my mind that I was ready for the NHL two years ago. It was inevitable that I would pick up bad habits by playing more junior hockey, and I did. Now that I am in the NHL, I feel—and I'm sure other people think the same thing—that I should be able to walk in and control the game like I did in Ottawa. Of course, that's impossible, but the thought nevertheless is inescapable."
Like all offensive-minded defensemen, Potvin depends on his instincts to get the puck up the ice, and those instincts must be refined by a careful study of the checking techniques of the players working against him. He is just getting to know them. "Once you learn the habits of a checker," Potvin says, "it is relatively easy to get the puck past him one way or another. I catalog the tactics checkers like to use, and I study them before every game."
In his first weeks with the Islanders, for example, Potvin recorded these traits: "Atlanta always sent two forwards at me when I had the puck behind the net. The next time we play the Flames I'll have to forget about carrying the puck myself and concentrate on passing it around their checkers to my forwards or working a give-and-go pass play with my other defenseman. Philadelphia doesn't let you carry the puck either, and the Flyer forwards like to be physical. Bobby Clarke will chase you behind the net and work on you with his stick, but Rick MacLeish waits in front of the net and picks you up when you skate out. The Flyers seem to make you hesitate a long time before you try anything. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to carry the puck against Boston as long as you don't try to skate out the right side when Wayne Cashman is on the ice. Cashman likes to check you behind the net. Ken Hodge, the right wing, and Phil Esposito, the center, both give you plenty of room to come out the left side. Hodge, in fact, stays way out at the face-off circle."
Potvin's major problem as a rookie, however, is that he plays for just about the worst team in the NHL. "I must be a realist," he says. "In junior hockey I could do pretty much what I wanted. I could skate all over the ice and carry the puck all night without any great worry. If I do that here, I'll get killed. We'll win a lot of games this year by playing positional hockey, by thinking defense first and offense second. As a result I have tempered my personal goals. In fact, my personal goals are the team's goals. Respectability. Winning. A positive attitude. I'm trying to approach the year in a tactful way. I'll produce in every game, but at the same time I'll be learning. I hope the people will be indulgent."
Although his family lives in the French section of Ottawa and speaks mostly French, Potvin speaks good English as well as French and may break Ken Dryden's rookie record for books read in one season. Since the start of training camp he has devoured six, including Future Shock, The Exorcist and Timothy Leary's The Hope Fiend and he will start on Semi-Tough after completing Herman Wouk's The Winds of War. "I must confess," he says, "that I had to go to my dictionary to get through Future Shock." Given his present perfectionism, the future shocks should belong to the enemy.