Obituary: Thayer 'Tad' Potter / Former owner of Penguins dies at 79

Feb. 19, 1933 - Jan. 11, 2013

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Thayer R. "Tad" Potter, a hockey fan who became part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1971, died of congestive heart failure Friday at Seneca Place in Penn Hills. He was 79.

Mr. Potter was a "hockey hound" who encouraged fans to buy season tickets when he heard a buyer wanted to move the Penguins out of Pittsburgh. The Penguins were a fairly new team then, given the National Hockey League had awarded an expansion team to Pittsburgh for the 1967-68 season.

"All of these hockey hounds were appalled by the whole idea. They formed a group that took over and bought the Penguins so they wouldn't leave town," his wife of 58 years, Jean, said.

Mr. Potter also was president of the Penguins, but by 1975 the organization was in bankruptcy and ultimately the group of investors was out.

In a 1987 interview with sportswriter Bob Smizik in The Pittsburgh Press, Mr. Potter called the day he was forced to give up control "the darkest day of my life."

The 1974-75 Penguins, his last team, finished with 89 points and a record of 25-5-10 at home, both then a team record.

Mrs. Potter said there were various obstacles, including the deaths of two of his financial partners, both relatives, in one year and escalating player salaries. In the 1987 interview, Mr. Potter said a significant blow also was a loss to the New York Islanders in the playoff quarterfinals when the team blew a three-game lead in the best-of-seven series. If the Penguins had gone on, there might have been enough money, he said.

A group of investors headed by Albert Savill ended up purchasing the team for $3.8 million and kept the Pens in Pittsburgh.

Joe Gordon, retired director of communications for the Steelers, was public relations director for the Penguins during the team's first two years. He said Mr. Potter was "passionate" about hockey and was "instrumental in keeping hockey in Pittsburgh. We may have lost the team if it hadn't been for Tad and his partners.

"In the early days, it was on very shaky ground because it didn't have the financial support required and attendance was only mediocre. It was always a delicate, sensitive situation on whether we were going to be able to retain it. They kept it alive and ultimately stronger financing came in."

While the loss of the Penguins was a disappointment, Mr. Potter was known for his lifelong good humor.

Even on a recent ambulance ride, his son, Thayer R. "Terry" Jr. of Rumson, N.J., said, he had "everybody in the back of the ambulance laughing."

His son described him as someone who treated everybody he met with the same respect, and who lived life "to the fullest, carefree and without pretense."

Mr. Potter showed that at the age of 27 when he witnessed Bill Mazeroski hit the winning home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series. He hopped the fence before Maz reached home and can be seen near the plate, wearing a white shirt and tie, in some pictures from that day, said his son.

Mr. Potter grew up in Edgewood and played three sports at then Edgewood High School.

However, his son said, "misbehavior and poor grades" resulted in his being sent to Valley Forge Military Academy, from which he graduated with honors. He went on to Penn State University -- where his son said he re-established his wisecracking -- and graduated in 1955. He went on to serve as a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Potter and his wife raised their three children in O'Hara and moved to Chatham Village in Mount Washington. He was in Seneca Place a short time before his death.

After the Penguins, Mr. Potter became involved in the energy business, forming Kitspaw Fuel, a coal brokerage company, and later doing site evaluation and development work for O'Brien Energy of Philadelphia.

Mrs. Potter said that his work on coal bed methane projects was his most satisfying professional achievement. A grandson of the late Pittsburgh industrialist Col. Willard Rockwell, Mr. Potter had come into some family money, she said, but "he was proud this was something he really did on his own."

Mr. and Mrs. Potter traveled extensively, and he developed a love for Italian cuisine. His son said his father's biggest passion, other than his family, was his annual fly fishing trips with friends to the Boulder River Ranch in Montana.

In addition to his son, Mr. Potter is survived by two daughters, Katharine of Fox Chapel and Kristin of Phoenixville, Chester County; four brothers, William of Anchorage, Alaska, Thomas of Sewickley, George of Louisville, Ky., and Larry of South Carolina; and eight grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday at Wm. Slater & Sons Inc., 301 Virginia Ave., Mount Washington. A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church, 384 Fox Chapel Road. A reception will follow at the Fox Chapel Racquet Club, 355 Hunt Road.

The family suggests memorial contributions to the Penn State University General Scholarship Fund, One Old Main, University Park, PA 16802.

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Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.


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