Islanders coaching legend and former Spitfire Al Arbour dies at 82
In this file photo, Hall of Fame hockey coach Al Arbour responds to questions during a news conference at Nassau Coliseum Friday, Nov. 2, 2007, in Uniondale, NY. (AP / Frank Franklin II)
The winner of four straight Stanley Cups as coach of the 1980s New York Islanders dynasty, Al Arbour commanded immediate respect from his players and contemporaries around the league.
Members of the hockey community remembered Arbour on Friday for his temperament and incredible success after his death at the age of 82 following a long battle with Parkinson's disease and dementia.
"We did lose a great man," Islanders Hall of Fame defenceman Dennis Potvin said. "Al Arbour was a man that left us not only with feeling like champions but left us with a lot of great memories that we can carry on through life."
The Sudbury, Ont., native coached the Islanders to the Cup in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 and won an NHL-record 19 straight playoff series through 1984. No team has won even three straight titles since.
Arbour's 782 regular-season victories are the second most in league history behind only Scotty Bowman, who he played for with the St. Louis Blues.
"He was thorough," Bowman said by phone Friday. "He had experience on good teams, he knew what it took to win. He was a no-nonsense guy. He laid down a plan and you had to execute it."
Arbour took the expansion Islanders to the playoffs in just their third year of existence and won the Cup in their eighth, his seventh behind the bench. He made 15 playoff appearances and coached a total of 1,500 games for New York, hitting the milestone when he came out of retirement for one final game in 2007 at the request of Ted Nolan.
"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 general manager Garth Snow said in a statement released by the team. "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."
Arbour, who also coached the Blues for parts of three seasons, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1996. Bill Torrey, the GM of the 1980s Islanders dynasty, said Arbour treated his players like family and prized winning above everything else in the sport.
"He never doubted the direction we were going in and I think the players could see this wasn't just words, this was something that this man believed deeply," Torrey said on a conference call. "And that makes it a little bit easier to follow."
Former Islanders forward Ray Ferraro remembered Arbour as much as a person as a winning coach and has fond memories of New York's run past Bowman's Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1993 playoffs.
"He was very firm and very demanding, but he was so incredibly fair that I don't know how you could want to play for anyone else," Ferraro said by phone. "He never panicked, was always sure but always sure without being a dictator. ... Al never tried to be the man. He just was."
As impressive as the four Islanders Cups were, his 19 straight playoff series victories stand out as one of the most unbreakable records in sports.
"I think that's a record that won't be broken," Bowman said with a chuckle. "It's hard to win two Cups in a row and that would be eight (series). I think that record is pretty safe."
As a defenceman, Arbour was part of four Cup champions with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs and was the first captain of the Blues. He played 626 games and was one of the last players to wear glasses on the ice.
Bowman recalled Arbour as a great shot-blocker and strong captain.
"People didn't realize it because he played with glasses on and you kind of looked at him and wondered, 'What was this?"' Bowman said. "But he was the most competitive player."
Arbour took part in 86 playoff games as a player and 209 more as a coach. He led the Islanders to 15 playoff appearances during his tenure.
Ferraro, who visited Arbour in Sarasota, Fla., this past spring with former teammates Pat Flatley, Glenn Healy and others, said his favourite story about the legendary coach came in 1993. Ferraro had just returned from missing time with an ankle injury, and when his play wasn't up to par, Arbour called him into his office with three games left before the playoffs.
"He said, 'Seagull, you got three games to get going, and if you can't get going you're going to be sitting with (my wife) Claire, and she's been in the same seats for 22 years,"' Ferraro recalled. "I just stood there and he said, 'That's all.' He gave me the opportunity to play well and said if you can't play well, then I'm going to have to use somebody else.
"I got 13 goals in 18 games in the playoffs that year. He gave me the chance. And I always felt that he was so fair in that regard."