The New York Islanders drafted Denis Potvin first overall in 1973 to serve as the foundation of their developing expansion team. He surpassed all expectations and became the first NHL defenseman to score 1,000 career points, all while functioning as the cornerstone of the franchise's four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980 to 1983. Potvin's wealth of natural talent allowed him to jump into the offensive rush while serving as a tough physical presence in his own end of the rink. He was one of the most complete blueliners to ever step onto the ice. A less discussed facet of Potvin's game was his mean streak. Opposing forwards learned quickly that they were better served avoiding confrontations with one of the NHL's lesser-known tough guys.
The native of Ottawa, Ontario, excelled at football and hockey as a youngster. Having opted to pursue the latter, he made the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1968-69. Potvin enjoyed an outstanding junior career, registering 329 points in five seasons. He was often paired with the offensively gifted Ian Turnbull to form one of the most lethal blue line partnerships ever seen in junior hockey circles. During Potvin's last year in Ottawa, he established an OHA single-season record for defensemen with 123 points.
As the highly touted first pick in the 1973 Amateur Draft, Potvin quickly made his presence felt in the NHL. He amassed 54 points in 1973-74 while displaying the confidence of a ten-year veteran. Potvin was the obvious choice in the Calder Trophy voting at the conclusion of the season. That year he also lived out a dream by playing with his brother Jean, who remained with the club for nearly five years. Potvin emerged as one of the leaders of a rapidly improving Islanders squad that reached the Stanley Cup semifinals in only its third season.
Following the 1975-76 campaign, Potvin was awarded the Norris Trophy, an honour he also received in 1978 and 1979. He experienced his most productive offensive output in the last of those years with 101 points. Between 1980 and 1983, he captained New York when they became only the second team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup four times in succession (Montreal did it twice). His overtime goal in the 1980 finals against Philadelphia gave his team the momentum and confidence it needed to win its first title. Potvin's top post-season output occurred in 1980-81, when he recorded 25 points in 18 games.
The talented defenseman distinguished himself on the international stage through his play on Canada's 1976 and 1981 Canada Cup teams. He retired at the conclusion of the 1987-88 season with regular-season totals of 310 goals and 1,052 points. Potvin also registered 56 goals and 164 points in the playoffs. In addition to his four major trophies, Potvin was selected to the NHL First All-Star Team five times and the Second All-Star Team twice.
The leadership qualities demonstrated by Potvin, along with his exceptional talent at both ends of the ice, placed him in a category reserved for only a handful of NHL defensemen. The Ottawa 67s hosted a special gala in his honour and raised his number to the rafters of the Ottawa Civic Center. Following a game on March 31, 1988, a cheering Nassau Coliseum audience paid homage to his career when his number 5 sweater was retired. Potvin was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991 and the ceremony was held in his hometown of Ottawa for the first time.