Photo credit: Newsday
It is far too often as of late that the hockey community loses one of its own. It was confirmed on Saturday, August 29, 2015, that legendary Hall of Fame coach, Al Arbour passed away at the age of 82.
Born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada in 1932, Arbour’s professional career began with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. Arbour played his first NHL game in 1953 with the Detroit Red Wings; while the majority of his 19 year NHL career was spent playing in the minors, Arbour did go on to win four Stanley Cups as a player. He won his first with the Red Wings in 1954, followed by a 1961 victory with the Chicago Blackhawks, and finally winning twice more with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 and 1964. Al “Radar” Arbour, was given his nickname due to the fact that he was one of the few player to wear his glasses on the ice, but this was far from the only thing special about him.
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame 1996, Al Arbour of course made his mark on the ice, but it was behind the bench where his true legacy was created. In 1970, Arbour got his start as a coach with the St. Louis after playing for parts of four seasons with the team. He remained behind the Blues’ bench for two seasons before the then, newly formed, New York Islanders GM, Bill Torrey, “The Architect”, recruited Arbour to lead the struggling team as head coach. The New York Islanders, during their inaugural 1972 season, had just 12 victories. With Arbour starting as head coach in 1973, the team again, finished at the bottom of the standings. However, after that first season is when momentum started to build, and a future hockey dynasty was beginning to take shape.
In 1974 the Islanders finished the season with 88 points, putting them in third place in their division. This jump in the standings landed the team with their first ever playoff appearance. The team went on to beat the New York Rangers, come from behind after trailing 3 games to none against Pittsburgh, but ultimately falling in the Conference Finals to the Philadelphia Flyers. This was just the first of many successful playoff runs for the young New York Islanders with Coach, Al Arbour at the helm. As Former Islanders GM, Bill Torrey said of Arbour in a press conference earlier today, “When you get young talent, the right direction and discipline no one was better at leading a group than Al Arbour.”
Arbour had a larger than life impact on players and fans alike. “Al Arbour was the quintessential coach. He knew how to get on a player’s skin to be the best that he could be. He could be irascible and nasty as can be,” commented long-time fan, and host of Sportstalk1240, Gary Harding. “But on the next breath, he would be the best buddy, able to pull the best prank or tell a great joke. If there were a “Mount Rushmore” of coaches in professional sports, I think he needs to be there.”
The Islanders went on to make four more playoff appearances in the following seasons, leading up to the 1979-1980 season when the New York Islanders won the first Stanley Cup in Franchise History. The young team, led by Arbour went on to win an additional three cups over the next three seasons. Jack Greenberg, an Islanders fan from the very beginning…and the man who is responsible for my love of the game remembers “If Al was behind the bench, we knew we had a shot to win”. Ultimately, Al Arbour is the man without whom; the New York Islanders would not have won four consecutive Stanley Cups, securing their place as a hockey dynasty.
Al Arbour went on to coach the New York Islanders until retiring after the 1985-1986 season. However, Arbour could not stay away for long. Torrey said today of Arbour that he was a special person, he was a special man. He was a great family man, a great hockey man…outside of his family, nothing was more important to him than his players and his team. Hockey was a major part of his life.” After the Islanders got off to a rocky start in the 1988-1989 season, Torrey brought Arbour out of retirement to take back his place behind the Islanders’ bench. Al remained with the team until he retired again following the 1993-1994 season. At the time of his second retirement, Arbour had coached a total of 1499 games, including an amazing 739 wins with the New York Islanders. In January of 1997, a banner was raised to honor the beloved coach commemorating his 739 wins with the team.
As Al loved the game so, he could not stay away forever. On November 3, 2007, current Islanders coach, Ted Nolan relinquished his spot behind the bench in order to give Arbour the chance to coach his 1500th game with the team. That night, a new banner was rasied to the rafters of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, replacing the 739 banner, was a new banner honoring the 1500 Islanders games coached by Al Arbour. That night the team went on to win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, giving Arbour his 740th Islander victory. Al’s reputation as one of the greatest coaches of all time was so wide-spread that fans who had been born well after the cup years, knew of the legendary coach.
Lawrence Watling, a fan that comes from a family of Islanders die-hards shared his favorite memory from the night Al Arbour was honored for 1500 games. “I’ll never forget watching Al stand behind the bench and coach the Islanders against the Penguins back in ‘07. I saw his 1500 banner get raised and my mom was crying the whole time. It was a magical moment. He cared for the organization but more importantly, he cared about Long Island and the fans that crowded into the barn to see him lead their boys to 4 straight cups.”
Arbour is a man that will forever be viewed as one of the best coaches in the game. Former Islanders star, Dennis Potvin stated earlier today that “We did lose a great man, and there’s so many things that we, that I can say about Al, in particular, I first met him when I was 19 years old, he coached me for 13 consecutive years. He left us feeling like champions and with great memories that we can carry on through life” “Al used to say that negative energy that you’re feeling, turn it into a positive energy.”
Al is survived by his wife and four children. Al was an important presence in the eyes of Islanders and hockey fans alike. His contributions to the game will not be forgotten. He will be missed.