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Islanders Award Winners: Denis Potvin, Norris Trophy, 1976

Our series of audio documentaries ends its first season with a look at the first of three Norris Trophy wins for the Hall of Fame defenseman.

The 1975 Islanders served notice around the NHL that they weren’t pushovers any more. And the burly kid wearing No. 5 and that weird, round helmet, was one of the very best in the league at what he did.

In the next season, at just 22-years old, Denis Potvin would be named the best defenseman in the NHL. But it was not an easy ride. He got off to a blistering start, then endured slumps, injuries, being benched by his coach, being booed by his own fans and, eventually, becoming only the second defender in NHL history to surpass the 30-goal mark in a season. In the playoffs, he was intensely targeted by rival players, but still led the NHL in scoring and paced the Islanders on another run to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Even after he won the Norris Trophy and was invited to join Team Canada for that year’s Canada Cup tournament, Potvin’s rocky road continued. A personal diary written about his experience included pointed criticisms of his All Star teammates and made him a lot of enemies, even within his own locker room and back in his hometown.

Despite all of the obstacles - self-created or otherwise - Potvin’s supreme talent always shined through, and he went on to have one of the best individual seasons in Islanders history, even to this day.

This was, in a lot of ways, the most interesting episode to write and research. Islanders history can be lumped into large eras and the details about individual seasons can get lost - even when they’re completely ridiculous seasons like this one. That’s basically the idea behind this entire podcast, and this episode is an example of the kind of story I wanted to tell.

I didn’t expect to include the Canada Cup stuff at the end, but after reading about it, it felt weird to not get into it, even if it technically happened after he won the Norris. That diary turned out to be a big deal for Denis Potvin’s career and changed the perception of him around the league. After reading it (it starts here on page 62), you can see why. Wooooooof. We can complain about modern athletes never saying anything interesting in interviews and this is an example of the other extreme (but man, is it entertaining).

This is the final episode of the first season of Islanders Award Winners. Thank you for following along and listening. We’ll have seven new stories next season, beginning in October. They’ll cover Islanders from a bunch of different eras or, in some cases, will look back at seasons we’ve already covered from a different perspective. We’ll have back-to-back winners, more super rookies, a Masterton Trophy winner, a legendary Coach of the Year and much, more more.

Until then, please enjoy this and the previous episodes during this very tense time and over the offseason.

Here are some extra pictures and stories from the time:

Al Cohn, Newsday, October 19, 1975
Pat Calabria, Newsday, November 9, 1975
Joe Gergan, Newsday, December 19, 1975
Potvin’s infamous Canada Cup diary. This was printed in The Montreal Gazette on October 23, 1976.

Here’s the entire Canada Cup diary if you want to read it. It starts on page 62.

Research and other assistance was provided by Kevin Schultz. Kevin runs the site, its Twitter account @LIHockeyHistory and the new store, where you can buy t-shirts, hoodies and mugs featuring the logos over over 100 classic hockey teams from all across North America, as well as our own Al Arbour tribute shirt. Use the code LIGHTHOUSE15 to get 15 percent off your order. Our portion of the sales of the Arbour shirt or any sales made using the code will be donated to the Center for Dementia Research.

This episode of Islanders Award Winners was written using Wikipedia, archival material from Newsday, MacLean’s, The Montreal Gazette, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated, and the books New York Islanders: Countdown to A Dynasty by Barry Wilner, Pride and Passion: 25 Years of the New York Islanders by Stan Fischler and Chris Botta and Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-1984 by Greg Prato.

The following video clips were also used in the podcast:

Islanders Award Winners will return next season: We’ll have an all new slate of stories posting monthly beginning next October, and it kicks off with a look at this same 1975-76 season from the perspective of that year’s Calder Trophy winner.