For some people retirement just does not stick. Al Arbour retired at least once as a player and twice as a coach before returning to coach just one more game on November 3, 2007. That final night behind the bench would mark his 1,500th game and 740th win coaching the New York Islanders.
Arbour began his NHL career as a player in 1953, and he played for the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the St. Louis Blues. All of the moves took place at drafts. During that time, he won three Stanley Cup championships (in 1961, 1962, and 1964). In October 1970, Scotty Bowman coached the Blues. As Arbour explained, “He wanted to step aside and become the general manager and he wanted me to take over.” Arbour credited Bowman as “the one who got me interested in coaching.” After some back and forth with coaching and playing, Arbour retired as a player and coached the Blues for two more seasons. He then briefly scouted for the Atlanta Flames when, in 1973, the New York Islanders GM, Bill Torrey, asked Arbour to coach the Islanders’ second season as a franchise. At first, Arbour declined thinking he would not like the move, but he signed on after visiting the team. “You could see a good team in the making.” After his first season there, the Islanders came in last, but then they really took off. Their four consecutive Stanley Cup championships came between 1980 and 1983. In 1978, Arbour had earned the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year. He first retired in 1986 to work in management, but he returned after the Islanders struggled in his absence. He commented, “I had never given any thought to coaching again,” but in 1992, he earned the Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to ice hockey. Arbour retired again in 1994, after coaching the Islanders in 1,499 games and 739 victories. He had a 487-game lead to set the record for number of games coached with a single franchise.
Come 2007, Islanders coach Ted Nolan felt the need to round out Arbour’s career to 1,500 games. Upon receiving the call, Arbour told Nolan, “Lookit, I don’t care if the game’s in November or May, it’s a big game. I don’t want to cause any problems for you.” Arbour had his doubts, noting that he had not “coached a game in 15 years,” or even “seen a game in person in three years,” and did not know more than three Islanders players by name. However, the day after celebrating his 75th birthday, he signed a one-day contract to coach the next day. In preparing to coach, Arbour said, “I am flattered that Ted thought of me and I wouldn’t miss this night for the world. I told the team that I do not want any pre-game fanfare. I’m there to coach the game and help Ted and my Islanders try to earn two points against a very tough team.”
That tough team was the Pittsburgh Penguins, and after they pulled ahead scoring the first two goals, Arbour thought to himself, “Oh my god, it’s gonna be 10-0 my first game back.” Instead, the sold-out Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum chanting his name energized the players, and the Islanders won 3-2. Captain Bill Guerin commented, “We had a comeback victory, and honestly, it was like we won the championship.” Coach Nolan felt that “Just by him being here, we won the game,” and as he shook Arbour’s hand at the end he said, “Just like old times, Al.” Everyone stayed to watch as the banner extolling Arbour’s 739 wins was replaced by the 1,500 games banner. At the end of the night, Arbour’s career record (782-577 and 1,607 points) placed him second among NHL coaches ranked by wins.
Arbour’s legacy included being inducted as a Builder in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 and having a banner honoring his 739 wins raised at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 1997. He meant so much to his team that they extoll his virtues as a tough but fair and positive coach. Denis Potvin eulogized, “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.” Bryan Trottier said, “Al was a softie and he cared about family and he cared about you as a person and he cared so much, and that would shine through.” According to Pat LaFontaine, “Al was able to take each player that played for him and, I believe, bring the best out of them, and the most out of them, and prepare them for what was in front of them.” Even though he may not have known all his players that fateful night in 2007, they knew him.