One thing that is a guarantee at any New York Rangers game is a “Potvin Sucks” chant from the fans. It has been decades since the origin of the chant, but whenever fans hear the initial whistle, they know just what to do. Interestingly, some young fans do not know about the hit or even who Potvin was, just that the famous chant is a tradition at Madison Square Garden.
On February 25th, 1979 at the Garden, the Rangers were playing the New York Islanders when “Potvin Sucks!” was born. Ulf Nilsson, a young and quick Rangers’ forward filled with potential, was going for the puck with a minute and twenty seconds left in the period. The Islanders’ captain, Denis Potvin, came around and checked Nilsson into the end boards, causing the rookie center to limp off the ice and not return to the game. He broke his ankle in the hit when his skate got caught in a crevice in the ice, making him take the brunt of the hit on his one leg.
“He was a great hockey player [...] He was always fair,” Nilsson said of Potvin back in 2009. “But the ice was never great in the Garden because they had basketball and other events. My foot got caught. It was a freak thing. The Ranger fans were so frustrated.” (The New York Times)
Nilsson was out for months and his first season as a Blueshirt was over, leaving the Rangers without one of their top scorers. Every time Potvin touched the puck that night, Rangers fans yelled “Potvin Sucks,” starting from the upper seats and working its way down towards the ice. But the taunting tune carried on, with fans shouting it out every time the Islanders came to town.
At the close of the 1970s the Rangers were a very good team, but the Islanders had made a name for themselves. In seven-years, the Islanders expansion team had become top contenders and were on their way to having the best record in the NHL. They were making dents in what were once Rangers communities and had hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.
In the absence of Nilsson, the Blueshirts went on to eliminate the Islanders in the semifinals that year but lost to the Montreal Candiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. When Nilsson returned, he was not the same speedy player as before and suffered a second injury at the 1981 Canada Cup while representing Sweden. That second injury was what caused him to miss the entire 1981-82 NHL season. By 1983, Nilsson’s career had fizzled out and Potvin had helped the Islanders win four consecutive Stanley Cups. Despite everything, Nilsson and many others will say to this day that it was a clean hit — but fans disagree.
The chant, created out of anger and frustration against Potvin and the Islanders, clearly persisted past that season. Whenever the organ player began playing “Let’s Go Band,” fans used the 5-5-5-3 note arrangement to yell “Potvin Sucks!” in unison. In 1985, the chant became a song that was even available to buy on vinyl. It was in the mid-80’s that the organ player stopped playing “Let’s Go Band” at the Garden in an attempt to expunge the melody and stop fans from carrying on further. Nevertheless, Blueshirt fans kept it up by whistling the same tune in order to keep it alive.
Potvin has not played hockey since 1988 and is a retired Hall of Fame defenseman. Regardless of this, forty-one years later, fans do at least one hearty rendition of the chant during games no matter what team they are playing against.
Many fans believe that the 1979 Rangers would have had a higher chance of winning the Stanley Cup had young Nilsson not been out for the season. When looking at the situation that way, it is understandable why fans resented Potvin for the hit. The check into the boards very well could have affected the outcome of that season and, in retrospect, history on Broadway. Additionally, it added fuel to the rivalry between the neighboring teams.
I remember looking for Potvin on the ice when I was younger, assuming he had just done something wrong to provoke the crowd. But, he was nowhere on the ice and everyone was smiling as they chirped at him in his absence. Some believe it is silly that fans have not abandoned the “Potvin Sucks!” chant and adapted it to a newer tune against more recent rivalries or players. Nevertheless, the chant is something that has been passed down from one generation of Blueshirt faithful to the next.