One year after Al Arbour’s passing, many of the Islanders all-time greats gathered together to remember their Hall of Fame coach and his legacy. While nearly every speaker mentioned Arbour’s numerous accomplishments in and around the rink, the former players and colleagues also discussed the impact their former coach had on their lives.
It was clear from the emotions expressed by so many of the speakers that Arbour was a big influence on them both on and off the ice.
“I get emotional when I talk about Al,” winger Bobby Nystrom explained after the ceremony. “People talk about his lessons and his strategies and things like that, but we came here as a bunch of young kids and he was like a father figure to most of us. He taught us about life and how to become men.”
Nystrom added that aside from his parents, Arbour had “the biggest impact on his life.” He also called his former coach, “the greatest motivator I ever met.”
Arbour took over the Islanders in the franchise’s second season, 1973-74. They had the worst record in league history up to that point the season before. In his first year behind the bench, Arbour made the team respectable and reduced the overall goals against by 100 over the previous season. In his second season at the helm, the Islanders not only reached the playoffs for the first time, but upset the heavily favored Rangers in the first round before becoming only the second team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 playoff series deficit and win four straight games in the next round against Pittsburgh. Then, the upstart Islanders pushed the defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers to seven games in the semifinals after trailing that series 3-0 before their magic run finally ended.
By 1978, the Islanders had the best record in the league, but they still hadn’t learned how to win championships. Arbour was able to help them reach that next level.
“Kids have to understand that there’s a process in losing and you learn from your losses,” Nystrom said when asked about one of the many lessons Arbour taught him that have stuck with him. “Never fear it. Always want to be a winner and win and succeed.” He also recalled that Arbour taught him that “If you have a monumental task, break it down to one item at a time and you can accomplish it.”
After disappointing playoff losses to the Maple Leafs in 1978 and the Rangers in 1979, the Islanders finally broke through in 1980, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games on Nystrom’s overtime goal at the Nassau Coliseum. They went on to win a total of four straight Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series before being dethroned by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.
Denis Potvin, who served as captain of the Isles dynasty teams, also spoke. After getting a playful little revenge dig at GM Garth Snow for some comments made after the Isles eliminated the Florida Panthers in the playoffs last spring, Potvin discussed Arbour and what he meant to the team.
“Al was a great combination of fun, hardship at times, tough, but all in all, we learned life lessons from him,” Potvin said. “I think we wanted to share the character that helped us all be winners.”
One major theme of the service was the importance of Arbour’s wife Claire to his life including her help with the players and their families over the years. The coach’s faith and dedication were also noted my numerous speakers including Mike Bossy, scout Jim Devellano, Butch Goring, Ken Morrow and owner Jon Ledecky.
Scotty Bowman, who was with Arbour in St. Louis before moving on to coach a dynasty in Montreal, also respected Arbour greatly. In addition to sharing warm memories of Arbour, Bowman, who finished his career as the only coach in league history with more wins than Arbour (Joel Quenneville has since passed Arbour for 2nd on the all-time list), added, “The toughest thing for me as a coach was trying to beat Al Arbour.”
Bill Torrey, the general manager of those great Islanders clubs worked closely with Arbour over the years. He was moved by the service which he noted was the third memorial service for Arbour since his passing and remarked, “It was Al’s only hat trick in hockey.”
It was easy to see the great respect Torrey held for his former coach and he added that any time he and Arbour disagreed, it was always behind closed doors and never made public.
Current Isles captain John Tavares was in attendance and was clearly moved by the ceremony. “You could just tell from all of the stories by the alumni and former players how special a guy he was, what he meant to the organization and the impact he had on all of them. The success they had speaks for itself.”
The final speaker was Snow who officially announced that the Isles practice arena would now officially be known as “Al Arbour Rink” in honor of all the team’s greatest all-time bench boss.
At the end of the day, it was clear that everybody respected Al Arbour the coach, but had a deeper affection for Al Arbour the man. That part of his legacy will live on long after the wins and losses have faded into memory.