On the first day of summer, 1991 on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, two of hockey's immortals took their place in the pantheon of the sport's heroes.
Denis Potvin was probably the most complete defense man the sport has ever known. Mike Bossy was one of the game's best snipers. Together they helped form the core of the last sports franchise to win four straight championships and the only one to ever win 19 straight playoff series.
On that summer day and seven months later when Potvin's number was retired in Uniondale, however, the team's outlook was already far removed from the glory days.
Bossy lamented the "sad" situation of the Isles who had just finished in last place, suffered from weak attendance, and were about to be sold. "Bowtie" Bill Torrey, chief architect of the dynasty Islanders, got only a mixed reception when he introduced Potvin at the latter event.
What no one knew at the time was that Torrey would soon be gone and that, after a brief flirtation with glory in 1993, the team would sink into a 15 year oblivion where disastrous personnel decisions never seemed to end, playoff appearances were rare, and playoff series wins were nonexistent.
In recent years, Garth Snow has begun leading the team out of the wilderness. Under his leadership, the Isles have acquired one blue chip prospect after another and are on the verge of a spectacular turnaround.
One consistent theme in this rebuilding has been character. Undoubtedly influenced by dynasty era veteran Ken Morrow, the team has stressed that quality in draft picks and free agent acquisitions. Like its dynasty era fore bearers, the developing young Islander squad will be loaded with character.
Another and related essential of the dynasty was the strong and intense leadership of Potvin. What was the substance of that leadership? And who, if anyone, among the current Islanders is suited to provide such leadership to a new generation of Islanders?
For Potvin, it involved a singular focus on doing what it took to win and a tremendous belief in himself. Bossy and Bryan Trottier stressed his strong contagious desire to be the best and to demand it of his teammates as well. Billy Smith praised his leadership on and off the ice and his ability as team spokesman.
Who will provide that kind of leadership for the current crop of Islanders? The names of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Josh Bailey have all been advanced. Of course, these things take time. Potvin was an Islander for six seasons before being named captain.
Understanding that such a choice would be premature, I will, nonetheless, make a pick of my own: newly drafted forward Nino Niederreiter.
Niederreiter possesses that same great belief in himself and his abilities that drove Potvin. It was those beliefs that impelled him to cross an ocean, overcome a language barrier, a different ice surface and game, and succeed at the highest level. It is this that makes him always want the puck and want to make the big play--as he did against Russia in the World Junior Championship series.
Niederreiter also strives to help his teammates be the very best they can be. On the ice, he is a force of nature. His naturally gregariousness pushes him to be constantly chirping and cajoling to get the best out of his teammates.
In his first on ice session of his NHL career, he was working the ice like a politician schmoozing his constituents. Whether he was chatting up Matt Martin or putting his arm around Joey Diamond (gotta love that name), Niederreiter exuded leadership.
Niederreiter has surely been told that he will have to give up his cherished uniform number (22) and has probably already met Bossy, in whose honor that number is safely ensconced in the Coliseum rafters.
He may already have chosen a new number and perhaps at some point he glanced wistfully up at the other numbers in those rafters. Was he wondering if his number would be up there someday? Or was he already trying to decide where it would go?
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