Felix Potvin and the city of Toronto collided like two shooting stars, making a perfect if fleeting match for the Maple Leafs in the 1990s.
During a superstar-fuelled goaltending era in which Canadian kids idolized Patrick Roy and his butterfly style, Potvin rocketed up the QMJHL and minor-pro ranks, hyped as the next Roy. Potvin was the 1991 CHL goaltender of the year, won best goalie at the Memorial Cup and was named the AHL’s top netminder the following year. He earned the moniker ‘Felix the Cat,’ which called to mind the cartoon, but mainly because of his rapid reflexes.
He looked like a can’t-miss star by the time he arrived in the NHL at age 21 in 1992. Toronto was a booming sports city at the time, home to the reigning World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays and an emerging Maple Leafs squad led by Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark. It was an exciting time to be an athlete there.
Potvin first had to pass 30-year-old starter and future Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr on the depth chart. As Potvin admits, he got lucky at the right time when Fuhr and 33-year-old Rick Wamsley sustained injuries at the start of the 1992-93 season. Potvin snatched the starting gig and never relinquished it. The Maple Leafs ended up sending Fuhr to Buffalo later that season in a crucial trade that landed them goal-scorer Dave Andreychuk and backup goalie Daren Puppa.
Toronto embarked on what most Leafs fans consider their best season since the 1967 Stanley Cup, and Potvin played a vital role. He led the league in goal-against average as a rookie, finishing third in Calder Trophy voting and fourth in Vezina Trophy balloting. In Ontario, it was suddenly Potvin, not Roy, pinned up on posters in aspiring goalies’ bedrooms.
Interestingly, Potvin idolized Billy Smith as a kid and says it was more for Smith’s “cool look” than his play, and Potvin won over fans because of his aesthetic, too. He had the distinctive cat mask, and his quickness helped him make highlight-reel stops. Even as he forced Fuhr out of town, Fuhr couldn’t help but be impressed with how his understudy matured as an NHLer. “Felix was sort of a transition goalie,” Fuhr said. “He could butterfly and use reflexes, but he was also a big kid, so he could play his angles. He was very good with his angles. So he was a hybrid.”
Potvin backstopped the Leafs to the 1993 conference final, but the club lost a gut-wrenching seven-game series to Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. Had Toronto won, they would’ve faced Roy and the longtime rival Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final. It still stings a bit for Potvin today. “Yeah, it’s tough to think about it,” he said. “Not so much about facing Patrick, because I played against Curtis Joseph in that playoffs, and I played against Kelly Hrudey, and they were all great goalies. But Toronto facing Montreal in the Cup final would have been pretty special for all fans, for all hockey. The toughest part about it is to come so close, and not being able to taste it is a bit of a bummer. But that’s hockey, and it’s good memories no matter what.”
Potvin got the Leafs back to the conference final the following year but couldn’t get them over the hump. Toronto sank in the standings the ensuing seasons as their defensive play deteriorated and Potvin got absolutely blitzed with pucks. In the past 50 years, the only goalie to see more rubber in one season than Potvin did in 1996-97 is Roberto Luongo.
By the late 1990s, when the Leafs turned over their roster to usher in a new era of success under captain Mats Sundin and coach Pat Quinn, they got aggressive in free agency and signed Joseph. Potvin was 27 when he had to open 1998-99 as a backup. “You’re never happy,” he said. “Toronto was a place that gave me my shot. I had success with them. I was sad more the way it was done. Not so much because they brought in ‘CuJo.’ At that time I respected what the Leafs wanted to do. But I found it hard not being traded before the signing when they brought in ‘CuJo,’ and I happened to be there for a little bit.”
Potvin, fed up, walked away from the Leafs on Dec. 2, 1998, demanding a trade, and got his wish with a ticket to the New York Islanders a month later. He never again achieved the level of stardom he did in Toronto. His years with the Islanders and Vancouver Canucks weren’t happy ones.
But he did enjoy a renaissance with Los Angeles, who acquired him in February 2001. He helped the Kings go on a surprise playoff run, upsetting the mighty Detroit Red Wings in Round 1 and pushing eventual Cup-champion Colorado to seven games in Round 2. Potvin even finished seventh in Vezina voting the following season. He stopped playing at 34 after the 2004-05 lockout, but his late-career rebound left a nice aftertaste. His fondest memories, he says, are of himself as a Leaf and a King.
It seems he’ll never escape the Roy comparisons, even in retirement. Like Roy, Potvin has gravitated to coaching. At 47, he helms the consistently competitive Magog Cantonniers in Quebec midget AAA. So does he plan to follow Roy’s path through major junior and eventually toward the NHL? Potvin loves coaching at home, but it’s obvious he’s open to ascending the ranks. “I had a couple of talks with teams in major junior,” he said. “It wasn’t the right fit at the right time, but I don’t close any doors. I like being around hockey players. It’s fun to be behind a bench, still being part of the game, so we’ll see what the future holds. But right now I’m happy here.”
If Potvin’s coaching career is anything like his playing career, he’ll rise quickly and arrive to a lot of fanfare.
Born: June 23, 1971, Anjou, Que.
NHL Career: 1991-2004
Teams: Tor, NYI, Van, LA, Bos
Stats: 266-260-85, 2.76 GAA, .905 SP, 32 SO
DID YOU KNOW?
It’s easy to make the connection between the Felix the Cat cartoon and Potvin’s nickname. But while most people assume his mask continues the Felix the Cat theme, the design was inspired by another famous form of feline. Artist Greg Harrison saw images for the Broadway musical Cats and incorporated them into the mask design, which is cat-inspired, but is more abstract than anatomical in its depiction of the animal.