Photo: V. Manninen via Flickr
On Feb. 25, New York Rangers diehards marked a cherished anniversary: the birth of the most notorious rallying cry in New York sports history. It has united Rangers fans of all ages, ethnicities and tax brackets for 40 years: “POTVIN SUCKS!”
I know all about it. I was at Madison Square Garden that night, on Feb. 25, 1979, when the chant was first heard. It started in the blue-collar upper reaches of the blue seats and cascaded down to the seats closer to the ice.
In a neat bit of symmetry, I was at the Rangers-New Jersey Devils game at MSG as recently as Feb. 23. Sure enough, I heard it once again (several times, in fact).
The hubbub all began during a typically intense Rangers-New York Islanders game on that long ago Sunday night, so far back in 1979 that the Iranian “students” hadn’t yet kidnapped Americans at the embassy in Tehran. Bob Dylan hadn’t yet been declared born again. And it would be about half a year til Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash.
The war cry was born at an exciting time. Back on Feb. 25, 1979, the ice hockey stakes were high. The Islanders were on their way to compiling the best record in the National Hockey League and hoping to win the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s seven-year history.
And the Rangers? My Rangers! We figured to be a stone in the Islanders’ shoe on their march to destiny. When it comes to local sports rivalries, this one has no match. Forget Yankees-Red Sox. Compared with Rangers-Islanders circa 1979, Yanks-Sox has all the intensity of a debate about which town serves up the best clam chowder.
During the Feb. 25, 1979 game, Islanders captain Denis Potvin smashed Ulf Nilsson, the Rangers’ best player, into the end boards so hard that Nilsson suffered a broken ankle. The Rangers’ home crowd was understandably furious as Ulfie Nilsson limped to the bench and didn’t return to the ice that evening. That the Rangers scored a goal a few feet away at that exact moment — and ultimately won the game — was little consolation, for Nilsson was never the same speedy skater when he came back from his injury.
Since that fateful night, the chant heard ‘round Madison Square Garden became a staple at every Rangers home game. It continued after the Islanders stopped winning championships and became a mediocre team, and even after Potvin himself retired from the NHL (and was eventually inducted into the sport’s hall of fame).
You don’t have to be a sociologist to conclude that the rallying cry reflects poorly on Rangers fans. Until the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, in 1994, “Potvin Sucks” was really all the fan base had to hang on to, to feel good about itself. Yelling that nonsense is akin to a poor person ringing Warren Buffett’s doorbell and running away. Big deal.
But that won’t stop Rangers fans. They liked their role as New York hockey’s lovable Brooklyn “Dem Bums” Dodgers to the perennial 1980s champion Islanders. They imagined that they had the moral high ground. They embraced their second-class status on the ice. And they always had the chant.
And they still do. Just listen.