Farewell, Coach Arbour
Some players and coaches become fan favorites despite not being the most successful or skilled. Others do have the success and skills, but a poor attitude or a dirty streak prevent them from becoming as beloved as their talent might otherwise dictate. When you find someone that faultlessly bridges the gap between a fan favorite and a high level of success, you know you have found someone special. The hockey world lost such a person last week with the passing of long-time New York Islanders head coach Al Arbour.
Arbour is now viewed nearly exclusively in the light of his coaching career, and the fact that he played is thus often overlooked or forgotten. Despite the fact that he was never a star on the ice, he cobbled together a lengthy career during which he won two Stanley Cups. At the age of 36, he was picked up by the expansion St. Louis Blues and managed to finish fifth in Norris Trophy voting. Partly through his fourth season with the Blues, he retired as a player to replace the now-legendary Scotty Bowman as head coach.
In 1973, after being fired by the Blues Arbour was presented with the opportunity to Coach the New York Islanders. The Isles were coming off of a season in which they posted a paltry 12-60-6 record, then the worst in NHL history, and GM Bill Torrey believed Arbour was the man to build the team. Arbour took the job despite a comment Bowman made to him. Bowman is rarely wrong about anything to do with coaching, but in this case, he was very wrong. "You'll be in last place for ten years."
The Islanders did finish last in the division in 1973-74 after a modest improvement to 19-41-18, but it would never happen again. In his second year with the team, Arbour coached the Islanders all the way to the NHL semifinals, a feat the franchise would accomplish for three consecutive seasons.
Being among hockey's "final four" three years in a row is no small achievement, but it was nowhere near the peak that Arbour and the Islanders would achieve. The Islanders built a highly impressive roster during Arbour's years with the team, and they had the perfect coach to get production from those players. A team with the likes of Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, and Bryan Trottier was a force to be reckoned with, and in 1980, the Isles reached the Promised Land.
In 1980, the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. It had taken the team less than a decade after its founding to reach the top of the sport. The Islanders were not to be one and done, however, as in 1981, the beat the Minnesota North Stars in five, and swept the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers in 1982 and 1983 respectively to capture four consecutive titles. In 1984, the reached the Finals for a fifth straight year, to give them a chance to mathc the Montreal Canadiens' record of five straight Cups, but fell to the Oilers in a rematch of the previous year's Final.
Arbour retired from coaching in 1986, only to return to the Islanders bench after a rocky start to the 1988-89 season. In his first full season back, he had the flailing Isles back into the playoffs, and in 1993, took them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the 1993-94 season, he coached the team back from being 13 points out of a playoff spot into the postseason, a record that stood until just last season when the Ottawa Senators overcame a 14 point deficit. Arbour retired again in 1994, this time "permanently." In 1996, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder category.
I placed the word permanently in quotes in the last paragraph because Arbour made one more brief comeback in 2007. Ted Nolan, who was then the Islanders head coach one day realized that Arbour had coached the Islanders in 1,499 games. After receiving the permission of team management, he invited Arbour to come back and coach one more game to get to 1,500. Arbour accepted. In a ceremony held at the Nassau Colliseum that night, the "739" banner that hung in the rafters to honor his wins with the team was lowered and replaced with one that read 1500. Not only did he get game number 1,500 behind the New York bench, but win number 740 as well, as the Isles downed the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2.
Over the course of his lengthy coaching career, Arbour coached 1607 games between the Islanders and Blues, compiling a 782-577-248 record. His games and wins totals are second only to Scottie Bowman. But ultimately, those numbers are not what made him great. The thing that made him so revered was the respect he commanded from players and fans alike. In fact, respected may not describe him as well as the word loved does. Last Friday was a hard day for the hockey world, since we lost not only a great coach, but a great man. But, as long as the sport survives, Al Arbour will always have a place of honor. He may be gone, but he is truly not forgotten.
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