When Denis Potvin was captain of the New York Islanders, his teammates had a nickname for Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“We used to call it ‘Fort Never Lose,’” Potvin says. “Teams came into Long Island and it was a tough night.
“Oh, gosh, it was a great place to play,” recalls Potvin, now an Ottawa Senators television analyst. “We had the best ice, the best fans. It was a great building to play in because of the sound in the arena.”
In recent seasons, though, tough nights on Long Island have taken on a different meaning from the years when Potvin was leading the Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s. From Fort Never Lose, the Coliseum became a place, among others the team visited, where the Isles Rarely Won.
Consistent losing, bad drafts and laughable contracts became the Islanders’ calling card, including the 10-year, $87.5-million deal for former Senators centre Alexei Yashin and 15 years and $67.5 million handed to goaltender Rick DiPietro, who is injured more often than healthy.
But the inability to get a new building was the biggest factor leading to Wednesday’s announcement that the Islanders are moving to Brooklyn in 2015-16 and signing a 25-year lease at Barclays Center, home of the NBA Nets.
Islanders owner Charles Wang, a 1962 graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, hinted that the move could come sooner, in the event of a deal to end the current lease with Nassau County before 2015.
Potvin, at home in Gatineau answering calls about the move, was initially despondent at the notion of his legendary Islanders team becoming the Brooklyn Whatevers. During the afternoon media conference in Brooklyn, however, it was confirmed that the name and logo would live on, to Potvin’s delight.
“I’m very happy to hear that news,” Potvin said. “I like that it’s going to be the New York Islanders.”
Brooklyn is on the Island, of course, and a mere 38 kilometres away from the Isles original home in Uniondale, where the Coliseum was built in 1970. The Islanders joined the NHL in 1972-73, and won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83, helping to launch Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Perth’s Billy Smith, among others, into the Hockey Hockey Hall of Fame.
The dynastic Isles once had a loyal local fan base, and Potvin wonders if the few thousand that still care about the forlorn franchise will make the trek to the team’s new home in Brooklyn.
“Uniondale is eons away from Brooklyn, in terms of the people, the businesses and all that stuff,” Potvin says.
They had their chance to retain the Isles, but Wang never could get the OK from the Nassau County legislature and local voters to create a real estate project that would include a new hockey building. And so the Islanders change locations, beating the odds that Phoenix would be the next NHL team to get a new home.
Potvin sees similarities between the young Islanders, led by John Tavares, and the group he joined in 1973, a hungry team chock full of top draft picks. As a kid growing up in Canada’s Nation’s Capital, and playing for the 67’s, Potvin had an impression of Long Island that turned out to be misguided.
“When I left Ottawa and was drafted by the New York Islanders, all I could think of was cement,” Potvin says. “And then when we got to Long Island, it was unbelievable. It was so beautiful, totally different from what we expected. And the reception was so warm.”
Potvin remembers a “family-like atmosphere,” much as former Ottawa 67’s head coach and GM Brian Kilrea recalled his time on the Island as an assistant coach in the 1970s.
To Potvin, the defining moment for a young Islanders team just finding its way in the NHL was a first-round playoff victory over the rival New York Rangers in April, 1975. Before Bossy and Trottier were on the scene, Potvin and players like Jude Drouin and J.P. Parise helped the Isles beat their Original Six nemesis.
“All of a sudden a great identity in hockey developed in Long Island, and it stayed on for a long, long time,” Potvin says.
In Uniondale, the Isles made 21 trips to the playoffs, but none since 2007. As they shift to Brooklyn, the Isles move into a building not made for hockey, which Potvin figures will have more than a few “blind spots,” among the tiny capacity of 14,500 for hockey.
Some analysts believe Wang’s move to Brooklyn could be the first step in a process that will see the hockey team sold to the owner of the NBA Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov.
In any case, the Isles move on, literally, and so does Potvin in the figurative sense. This much won’t change: The Islanders’ No. 5 will always be adored on the Island and despised at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“I think everything we have accomplished is always going to be there,” Potvin says, “and for the franchise, maybe business will be better.”