Rangers fans are menace ask Denis

June 05, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They didn't just boo him. They added an expletive to his name.

"Potvin -----."

It was their mantra.

Their motto.

Their mission, to torment this man.

Rangers fans.

The lunatic fringe.

No psychiatrist can explain them.

No one felt their venom like Denis Potvin.

Put it this way: If the Rangers win the Stanley Cup, it's good for the NHL, and bad for civilization.

The Vancouver Canucks must save the world.

Rooting for the Rangers is like rooting for the apocalypse.

Potvin was a Hall of Fame defenseman for the New York Islanders, an expansion team that formed in 1972, then won four straight Cups faster than you could say "1940."

The Rangers fans hate him for that -- hate is their governing emotion -- but this all started in '79, when Potvin checked the Rangers' Ulf Nilsson, and Nilsson suffered a broken ankle.

It was a clean play -- "clean check, bad ice" is how Potvin remembers it -- but Nilsson was the Rangers' Swedish star, and Madison Square Garden went nuts.

"Potvin -----."

The Islanders went on to win their four Cups, and the Rangers are still trying to end what now is going on a 54-year drought. Which, obviously, is all Potvin's fault.

He heard the chant game after game, year after year. He even heard it again at the Garden this season, six years after his retirement -- first, when he returned as a broadcaster for the Florida Panthers; then, at the "Heroes of Hockey" old-timers contest before the NHL All-Star Game.

The chant is part of New York,like subway filth and traffic gridlock. Potvin recalls attending a New York Giants football game at the Meadowlands. A Sunday diversion, a pleasant little escape.

"Potvin -----."

"I couldn't believe my ears," he said. "I don't think they knew I was there, but I heard it. People tell me they've been to Knicks games and heard it. People tell me they hear it all the time, at most arenas in the Northeast. You'll hear it almost anywhere."

Chicago Cubs fans think it's cute that their team never wins. Boston Red Sox fans talk about Calvinistic fate. Rangers fans drown out their national anthem, then spew expletives for 60 minutes -- at the officials, the opponents and yes, the beloved home team.

"It's a wild spectacle," Potvin said.

A few years back, there was a fan called "The Chief," a middle-aged man who wore thick glasses, a blue Rangers jersey and an Indian headdress.

"The Chief" would spend the entire game racing up and down the aisles and calling the play-by-play into a microphone.

There was just one problem. The microphone wasn't plugged in. It just sort of dangled.

"Ranger Vito" was another well-known fan of recent vintage. The Garden organist would play the "Peanuts" song, and "Ranger Vito" would start jiggling.

He was just what you'd imagine "Ranger Vito" to be -- your basic fat slob.

It's a mixed crowd, half suits, half scum, 10,000 Gordon Gekkos and 10,000 subway vigilantes. These are the people who once threw sugar packets at a diabetic, former Philadelphia Flyer Bobby Clarke.

"It was awfully intimidating," Potvin said. "It was scary at times. Certainly, it was a dangerous place, there was no question about it."

Potvin remembers a fan throwing a 9-volt battery, and the battery leaving a hole in the ice. He remembers another throwing a full beer bottle at the Islanders' bus, shattering the window.

"You started realizing at that point that you were in a riot-type environment," he said. "People have lost all control."

And the chant?

"Eventually, I became sort of used to it. I used it as a motivating tool.

I took great pleasure playing the Rangers, and beating the Rangers."

That the Islanders did, at one point knocking the Rangers out of the playoffs four straight years. But the New Jersey Devils are now the Rangers' bigger local rival.

The Devils moved to New Jersey from Colorado in 1982. If only they hadn't succumbed in double overtime in Game 7 of the semifinals, they, too, might have beaten the Rangers to the Cup.

"It would have been like the stock-market crash of 1929 -- people jumping out of windows," Potvin said.

The irony is, Rangers coach Mike Keenan attempted to talk Potvin into a comeback this spring -- a comeback with the Rangers! Potvin, 40, thought it over, but declined.

As it turned out, Keenan did the former Islander a favor -- Potvin noticed a difference the next time he did a broadcast from the Garden. The fans embraced him, lining up for autographs.

"Had I worn a Rangers sweater, it would have been awfully funny to see their reaction," he said.

"Potvin -----."

He heard their chant.

He felt their venom.

.` "Write it carefully," he said.

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