One year after Al Arbour passed away, former General Manager Bill Torrey found himself retracing the steps he and the Hall of Fame coach took every morning on their trip to the rink.
It started with a trip to the Cold Spring Harbor Deli to pick up coffee, Halls lozenges and two packs of cigarettes, but on this day, Torrey found himself alone, buying only the coffee and Halls and — his dear friend in his memory and in his heart.
Torrey was the second-to-last speaker at the memorial marking the one-year anniversary of Arbour’s passing, praising him as a man and a hockey coach, letting out private details of their personal relationship and celebrating their accomplishments. It was the third memorial Torrey had been to for Arbour and he said no one deserved three memorials more than the Hall of Fame coach. But even one year later, it was clear just by the sound of his voice that it wasn’t necessarily getting easier as he choked up near the end of his speech.
“He will live on,” Torrey said. “His imprint, his philosophies and the legacy of Al Arbour lives on. And I miss him.”
Legacy was the word of the day on Monday. One by one, the speakers, who included Islanders legends Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin and Hockey Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, shared stories about the way Arbour’s life had influenced their own. Everyone touched on his success as a coach, which included four Cups behind the Islanders bench (eight overall) but they shared stories, intimate details from their time together, whether it was with the Islanders, the St. Louis Blues, junior hockey, or away from the rink.
“What is success?” Bobby Nystrom asked during a moving tribute. “I think one measure is all the people you’ve come in contact with, how many did you help or positively affect? On this alone Al Arbour is head and shoulders above the rest of us. Just ask the hundreds of players he played with, or played for him. We will miss you Al, but we will never forget you, or what you taught us.”
Nystrom said Arbour taught him how to win, as well as how to be humble.
“He never took credit for any success he had,” Nystrom said. “I’m not sure how he ever attained such success because according to him he never did anything.”
Arbour looked like a disciplinarian, but Mike Bossy spoke of how the coach supported him when he doubted himself as a young player. He had a sense of humor, as Ken Morrow recalled Arbour calling him “Moses” upon his arrival to the Islanders from Team USA. Butch Goring told stories about the lessons he learned from Arbour, like getting to know your team on an intimate level.
“Al was not only a great coach, not only a great leader,” Denis Potvin said. “He was a life mentor.”
He practiced what he preached. Bowman, the NHL’s all-time winningest coach, spoke glowingly of Arbour both as a hockey man and as a human being. He recalled a time in St. Louis when Arbour overheard a player talking about a scheme to get out of paying incidentals. Arbour, who placed a premium on character as a coach, held his players and teammates to a higher standard and told that player if he didn’t pay up, he’d be off the team.
“He stood up for fairness and he stood up for the right thing to do,” Bowman said.
Arbour’s immediate, extended and Islanders family turned out for the celebration of his life on Monday (which included tributes to his wife Claire, who was credited with helping many wives and families get settled on Long Island).
These people, from Torrey to Potvin to Pat LaFontaine all knew Arbour personally, but his memorial was also attended by a handful of current Islanders, who turned out to pay their respects to one of the game’s all-time greats. The messages about Arbour’s legacy were not lost on them.
“It gives you chills,” John Tavares said. “You can just tell from all the stories… how special of a guy he was, what he meant to this organization and the impact he had on all of them.
“It’s recognizing the standard and the tradition of the Islanders and what they mean to the community and what a guy like Al Arbour meant to the organization and the community here. You certainly want to carry that on and bring that excellence on and off the ice that he certainly brought.
“It’s something great to reflect on and something to learn as well, so it was important to be here.”
It was important for a lot of people to be there on Monday, including the fans who paid tribute during the middle of a workday. There were still some emotional moments, with a year to process his passing, Monday was meant to be a celebration of a great life well lived. Even Torrey tossed in a couple of jokes, calling the third memorial the only hat trick Arbour ever scored.
“We could have fun with it today,” Potvin said. “And I think that’s what everybody deserved. To understand that Al was a great combination of fun, hardship at times, tough, but all in all, we learned life lessons from him.”