The New York Islanders announced that legendary coach Al Arbour has passed away at the age of 82. Arbour led the team to four straight Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983 and coached one of the greatest dynasties in hockey history. His former players remember him fondly both as a coach and as a man.
“Al will always be remembered as one of, if not, the greatest coaches ever to stand behind a bench in the history of the National Hockey League,” Islanders President and General Manager Garth Snow said in a statement. “The New York Islanders franchise has four Stanley Cups to its name, thanks in large part to Al’s incredible efforts. From his innovative coaching methods, to his humble way of life away from the game, Al is one of the reasons the New York Islanders are a historic franchise. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to the entire Arbour family.”
Arbour joined the Islanders prior to their second season in 1973. The team he took over set an NHL record for futility in their first year in the league, winning just 12 of 78 games. During his first season behind the bench, he made the team respectable and transformed them from an expansion patsy to a team that was difficult to play against.
“It was like a total turnaround the first camp he came in,” recalled Bob Nystrom. “The first day we were on the ice for 2 ½ hours. He set down the law early. He set the ground rules pretty early…We were going to be the hardest working team and that’s how we were going to be successful…He had a system for everything. To this day, no coach prepares as well.”
In his first season behind the bench, the Islanders cut their goals against by 100 from the previous season despite the fact that they played the same two goalies. In his second season, the Isles reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and went on an historic run to the semifinals. First they beat the Rangers in a deciding game on J.P. Parise’s overtime goal. Then they became just the second team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit and win a series when they topped the Penguins. They fell behind the defending Stanley Cup winners, the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 in the semifinals but came back and forced a seventh game.
The Isles would return to the semifinals in four of the next five seasons before going on a run of four straight Stanley Cup championships and 19 straight playoff series wins.
“He was a great coach,” recalled Earl Ingarfield who preceded Arbour behind the Isles bench and worked as a scout with the Islanders to help build the dynasty teams. “He had a bright hockey mind. He demanded respect and really knew the game. He instituted things that other coaches at that time never even thought about, the way they attacked, the way they came out of their zone, the way they worked the power play, etc.”
Part of the reason for Arbour’s success was the way he handled his players. “Everybody gets treated the same. You may be Denis Potvin or Terry Crisp, you get treated the same,” recalled Ed Westfall. “Al got the players’ respect immediately. He was boringly consistent. We could tell what drill was next by the number of whistles he blew. He knew what he wanted to do and wouldn’t take any shit but he also knew how to have fun.”
Arbour got the most out of his players, both the stars and the role players. “Al created some pretty good players from ordinary talent,” recalled defenseman Gerry Hart.
J.P. Parise, who was a veteran brought in to help the young Isles learn how to win in 1975, immediately respected Arbour. “He was an imposing figure. He was serious and smart and his game plans involved individuals. He made us do simple little things. He watched videos and uncovered people’s weaknesses and then set up game plans on breakouts to take advantage of them. The players worked hard for him and he had a way to motivate people. He also had a sense of tremendous kindness and appreciation for his players.”
Arbour was a resourceful coach. He used the rules to his team’s advantage. In the days when a replacement goalie was allowed to warm-up when entering a game, Arbour changed goalies to get his team a much-needed rest or timeout.
He never panicked and never let his team lose focus either. In the 1984 series against the Rangers, Rangers forward Don Maloney tied the fifth and deciding game in the final minute of regulation, forcing overtime. Many teams would have sulked and adopted a negative attitude. Arbour wouldn’t let his team do that.
Al Arbour was a positive force,” recalled Nystrom. “He had instilled it in us. Who’s going to be the hero in here? There was no thought of being a goat. We were going to go at them.”
They did and Ken Morrow scored the overtime goal that eliminated the Rangers and kept the “Drive for Five” going.
“He was more than a coach, he was a father figure to everybody,” said Patrick Flatley. “He was a smart guy…He treated everyone differently and he knew when they needed a pat on the back and when they needed a kick in the rear. He knew when to do each and he never made a mistake. He was dealing with 20 people and trying to get the most out of them. Hockey is a very basic game, it’s very fluid, but he helped us be better as a team.”
Arbour retired as coach for the first time after the 1985-86 season and worked in the Islanders front office. He returned to coach the Isles again midway through the 1988-89 season. Arbour’s second stint behind the bench didn’t result in any Stanley Cup titles, but he got the most out of his team and even led a very average Islanders team to the Conference Final in 1993.
“He was a genius in every way,” said goalie Glenn Healy who helped lead the Isles during the 1993 playoff run. “Every time he gave a speech to the team, all 20 guys thought he was speaking directly to them. That is almost impossible. He took an average team in 1993 and got by Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champions even though we were without or best player, Pierre Turgeon. He was a fair man and an honest man and a good family man. I don’t have one bad thing to say about Al Arbour.”
Dean Chynoweth, who later became an NHL assistant coach, learned a lot from Arbour. “He was an older fellow that had instant respect and credibility in the dressing room. He evolved and became a father figure to a lot of us. It was almost like having your grandpa there at times. He was a different coach with us than he was in the glory years. We didn’t have the same results, but he had the same goal of getting the most out of the players. I’ve always said Al and Scotty Bowman to me are the most amazing coaches because they coached in different eras where they had to adapt. So many different coaches don’t adapt when they’re out of the game and the game passes them by but that wasn’t the case with Al.”
Arbour retired a second time after the 1993-94 season and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
The Islanders brought Arbour back for one more game on November 3, 2007. That was the 1,500th game he coached the Islanders. Two late goals by Miro Satan gave Arbour one more victory behind the bench and the fans at the Nassau Coliseum got one more chance to celebrate Arbour and what he meant to the franchise.
Arbour fell ill with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia in recent years and his players came to visit him and comfort his family. He is survived by his wife Claire and his children Joann, Jay, Julie and Janice.
The numbers surrounding Arbour’s career are impressive. He led the Islanders to 15 playoff appearances in 19 seasons behind the bench and won 119 career playoff games. He is second all-time in NHL history in wins and games coached. No team has won four straight championships in any major sport since Arbour’s Islanders did it from 1980-83 and the record of 19 straight playoff series wins will probably never be bested.
But more than the numbers he put up, former players appreciated Al Arbour the man and what he meant to them on and off the ice. “He was my favorite coach,” said former Islanders forward Ray Ferraro. “He wasn’t just a great coach, he was a great man.”
NOTE: All quotes were gathered from separate interviews by the author conducted prior to Al Arbour’s passing.