Maple Leaf history, like that of most NHL franchises, is filled with the names of goaltending greats. In these parts, names like Broda, Lumley, Bower and Sawchuk represent a time in Leaf lore when championships—or at least being in serious contention—were the order of the day.
For a brief time, our net was guarded by future Hall-of-Famers Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent in the very same season. Sadly, that era in the early ‘70s was too short-lived. Plante was well into his 40s by that point. Parent, emerging as an all-time great, skipped to the fledgling World Hockey Association after a short stay with the Leafs. Parent finished his brilliant career with the Flyers, where (before injuries ended his career too soon) he backstopped the "Broad Street Bullies" to two consecutive Stanley Cups in the mid-'70s.
In more recent times, Mike Palmateer was a very popular Leaf. The little left-handed goalie brought a certain cockiness to the position when the Leafs needed some of that swagger in the later 1970s. Unfortunately, just as the Leafs of that era were ready to contend, behind Salming, Turbull, Carlyle, Johanssen on the back end and solid forwards like Sittler, McDonald, Ellis, Tiger Williams and Dan Maloney, the Montreal Canadiens were icing some of the best teams in history.
The Leafs never got past the second round.
While young Allan Bester and Ken Wreggett certainly had some fine moments in blue and white in the 1980s off and on, it really wasn’t until Doug Gilmour and Pat Burns arrived in the early 1990s that the team’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the better. At the time, General Manager Cliff Fletcher had brought in Grant Fuhr from Edmonton in a major trade to handle the goalkeeping chores. Fuhr did OK here, though he never really evoked memories on a consistent basis of what had made him a one-day Hall-of-Famer with those great Oiler teams of the 1980s.
When Fletcher and Burns decided to go with a relatively untested kid (off the top of my head, I’m thinking the incoming youngster was maybe 22 at the time, playing in the AHL) during the 1992-’93 season, it allowed Fletcher to acquire high-scoring Dave Andreychuk in return for Fuhr. It was a risky move, but it paid off big-time.
The name of the young incoming goalie was Felix Potvin. The rest is history. Not ultimate-success kind of history, but a pretty neat memory for Leaf fans of the time.
On the backs of a solid no-name defense (Ellett, Gill, Lefebvre, etc.), the leadership of Gilmour and Wendel Clark and the generally top-notch goaltending of Potvin, the Leafs made it all the way to Game 7 of the semi-finals against the surging LA Kings of Wayne Gretzky fame. Basically, with Game 7 tied at 3 at the Gardens in the third period, the Leafs were a goal away from a date in the Stanley Cup finals with the awaiting Montreal Canadiens. It would have been a rematch of the 1967 finals with the hated Habs.
But Gretzky and company killed the dream that fateful night with a performance only Wayne could offer up—and on the heels of a Toronto Star column pointing out that Gretz had been playing like he had a piano on his back earlier in the series.
The next fall the Leafs started the 1993-’94 season with a ten-game unbeaten streak. They rode that amazing start all the way to another trip to the semi-finals, this time against Vancouver.
After winning Game 1 at the Gardens, the Leafs dropped four in a row against the Canucks, who in turn lost in the finals in 7 games against the Rangers. That summer Fletcher thought the Leafs needed to get even better to get to the next and final level, and sent a fine defenseman, Sylvain Lefebvre and Clark to Quebec for Mats Sundin. It helped in the long run but ended the team’s run at the time.
I’m not sure Potvin was a true elite-level goaltender, or a kind you would call “world class”, but in his era he was a sound goalkeeper who got results. His game kind of was like the rest of the team’s during the rest of his tenure in Toronto—often OK, but he never consistently met the standard he had set in his earliest years with the club. Some of that was him, a lot of it, in my view, was that the team around him was no longer as defensively aware or as gritty as it had been in the first two years of the Burns era.
In any event, Potvin ultimately became expendable when the Leafs, out of nowhere, signed Curtis Joseph as a free agent in the summer of 1998. He was dealt to the Islanders (the Leafs got young Bryan Berard…) and from there Felix played for Vancouver, LA and Boston.
I have to be honest. I did not follow Potvin’s career all that closely after he left Toronto. Yet, looking back at his numbers now, he did OK in his various NHL stops. His lifetime winning percentage was over .500, and his save percentage rested at .905 by the time he finished his fine career.
In his playoff career, his numbers were also pretty solid: 35 wins, a 2.64 GAA and a save percentage of .910—not too bad, eh?
I’m among those who probably glossed over Felix’s achievements after he left Toronto, perhaps unfairly. Even in his last season in Boston, in 2003-’04, he picked up 4 shutouts.
Yet he retired after that, done at the age of only 32.
Yet for Leaf fans of that pretty special early and mid-‘90s era (when the Leafs had people driving around town honking their horns in earnest, Potvin, just a kid goalie at the time, will always be remembered as one of the players that had had an awful lot to do with the the team's success.