My hand is still hurting from the first time I shook Denis Potvin’s hand back in September.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. The man crushed my right hand with a friendly greeting on the first day of Ottawa Senators training camp. And as a result, I had to spend the entire season holding the Sportsnet microphone with my left hand. I haven’t been able to lift up my kids for six months. And worst of all, my scores in Angry Birds have plummeted.
The size of Potvin’s hands is the thing of legend in the broadcasting industry, where the majority of reporters have delicately manicured extremities. While most of us were learning how to type 50 words per minute, Potvin was busy using his hands to knock out the Broad Street Bullies.
In every sense, he is a man’s man. He doesn’t mince words and he still has a deathly stare that would intimidate half of the Southeast Division. If he were a drink, he’d be a straight scotch. (For the record, using the same, unofficial Manly Drink Scale, I fall somewhere in between a Fresca and a Shirley Temple).
But despite our obvious differences, we were able to forge a legitimate friendship this season, which was Denis’ first on our broadcast team. We wrapped up our final broadcast on Tuesday night, which gave me an opportunity to look back at a season working with a Hall of Famer.
For a good portion of the season, Denis and I would sit together on the plane when doing road games. The first time we sat together, I noticed that Denis was sitting in the seat assigned to me.
He said, “I don’t like the window. So you’re taking it and I’m taking your seat.”
It wasn’t a request so much as a demand. I didn’t know how to respond. My first thought was to come up with some witty Islanders-related joke to break the tension.
“You know for a guy named Potvin, you sure are Bossy,” I wanted to say. Instead, I just quietly took my seat without so much as a whimper.
But to my genuine surprise, Denis was an amazing travel companion. No arrogance or attitude from a man in the Hall of Fame with four Stanley Cup rings. I figured he’d want to keep to himself, but the complete opposite was true.
I remember sitting next to him on a flight to Philadelphia early in the season, when I didn’t know him too well. I was reading a novel, when Denis interrupted me to say, “Hey c’mon … let’s talk. Put down your book.”
I nearly spit out my Perrier (with a lemon wedge). Are you kidding me? A hockey legend wants to talk to me?
This is the greatest player in New York Islanders history. This isn’t like running into Mikko Makela at a bar. Or getting a chance to chat with David Volek for five minutes. This is the guy who captained the Islanders to four Stanley Cups. He was part of the team that taught the Edmonton Oilers how to win.
So when the Hall of Fame captain wants to talk, you put down whatever you’re doing and listen. Denis is an unbelievable storyteller and most of his stories trump mine.
“Okay Denis, that was a great story about how you knocked Guy Lafleur on his ass at the Montreal Forum. Now let me tell you about the time I discovered the warp world in the original Super Mario game.”
It’s also amazing to see how Denis responds to the thousands of fans who still adore him. On one long flight this season, he spent time autographing countless pictures and cards that were mailed to him by random fans. And almost every time we step off a bus in another NHL city, the fans come rushing to him with as much excitement as they have for Jason Spezza or Daniel Alfredsson. We even forgot him one day in Chicago, because our bus took off and Denis was too busy signing autographs.
And while Denis still enjoys the fame and talking about the Islanders glory days, if you really want to see his face light up, just ask him about his family. There is more of a sparkle in his eye when he speaks about his wife and three children than there is when he talks about the Islanders dynasty. These four people mean more to him than the four Stanley Cups. He often asks me questions about my wife and daughters and he takes a genuine interest in family life.
Last week, we had a chance to visit Denis and his family in Florida, when he invited a lot of us over for a season-ending meal at his home. Unfortunately, it was like spending a weekend at the Coors Light Mystery Mansion so I am not permitted to disclose any of the details of our night. But I can say it was an unbelievable window into a man who is genuinely happy with his family and his work.
His photos and trophy and scrapbook collection are filled with items that should be in the Hall of Fame.
I have offered for Denis to come by my house and look at my scrapbook and photo collection, which mostly feature class pictures of me from Jostens. Surprisingly, he has not responded to my request.
But if I don’t see him again this summer, I can’t wait to work with Denis again next season.
And I’m hoping that when I see him again next fall, we do a fist-bump instead of a handshake.