Saturday Night with Coach Arbour
by Bloomberg 1130's Chris King
What a very special night it was Saturday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, as the Islanders honored the 1980 Stanley Cup champs. It was so good to see all those players back in the ol' barn on Hempstead Turnpike one more time. For coach Al Arbour, it was the first time in over five years that he had been back inside the building he called home for so many seasons. He was thrilled to be back for the big event, and we had a chance to catch up during the morning skate.
CK: What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your 1979-80 Stanley Cup championship team?
AA: Well, the first thing I think about are the players. They were just something very special to me, and I think to all of us. And Bill Torrey, of course. I think about the players quite often. You realize as you get older what they went through and everything else, and all the BS they took from me, but I have to commend them. They were a great group that always showed up to play - every game, every shift - and that was the main thing.
CK: What was it like for you to be back in the company of all of them again last night during your private dinner?
AA: Well, I tell you, for a while my back was really sore as I was getting all those poison darts from them all night (laughs). They got even with me pretty good. But it was very enjoyable and we had a great time reminiscing. We had such great people there. That made it a lot better and a lot easier also.
CK: Tell me how disappointing the 1979-80 regular season was for you coming off the 1978-79 season when you led the league in total points. I know it certainly turned around at just the right time for you with the acquisition of Butch Goring.
AA: We kind of changed our format around a little bit during that regular season. Everyone said to forget about the playoff losses to the Maple Leafs in 1978 and the Rangers in 1979. But I said, "No, I don't want them to forget about it. Just remember that so it will never happen again". We carried those losses into the season a little longer than I thought it would be and I couldn't really get 'em going. But I think that trade for Butchie really opened all of their eyes. We needed somebody that was going to have that calming influence, an experienced player and everything else. He had that affect on the team immediately and we were on our way from there forward.
CK: Can you talk a little bit about that amazing playoff run? To go through Los Angeles, Boston and Buffalo just to get to the best team in the league in Philadelphia - how did you feel coming into your first Stanley Cup finals?
AA: We felt very good about it. We played very well. It seemed we always had trouble in the first round - I don't know what it is - until you really get going and get that playoff thing in your blood or whatever it is. We got stronger and stronger with every series we went through. We played very well against Philly and they had a very good team - they set a record that year by going 35 straight games without a loss ? so we knew we had our hands full. But our guys showed up at the right time and they came up big. I knew it was going to be a tough series and we won it, thank God.
CK: Al, we are standing just outside the Islanders locker room right now. Take me back to May 24, 1980. You had a 4-2 lead going into the third period of Game 6, only to have the Flyers tie the game at 4 and send it to overtime. You're in the room between the end of regulation and the start of overtime. What was the mood in there and what did you say to your team?
AA: We were very confident going into overtime. I was a little worried about the third period because the guys really tensed up and they weren't themselves at all. But in overtime, we would always go for it as long as it was a 50-50 chance. I would tell them, "Don't worry about it - somebody in here is going to get the winning goal". And that's the way it always worked out - we won a lot of overtime games in those playoffs. But we felt a lot better going into overtime than we did in the third period, I'll tell you that.
CK: Did you try to calm them down at all - was that your role in the room?
AA: Not really. This is why we acquired Butchie. Because you can't be with the players all the time. You have to have a player that is able to calm them down a little bit, and Butchie had that calming affect. I used to call him "seed bag" all the time because of that. He'd come up with a couple of quirky things to say - he didn't worry about anything. He just kind of relaxed them, and once we hit overtime, we were rarin' to go.
CK: And what about Bobby Nystrom - it seemed like whenever the team needed a big goal, he was the one to come up with it.
AA: Well, you know, that's why we won so many championships. We had that type of a team. We had the Nystroms, the Howatts, the Langevins, the Gordie Lanes and the Kenny Morrows. Kenny never scored any goals, but all of his goals were big goals. A lot of times these were the guys that would keep us in games until the top players would start to really play and score goals. And those players would win the games for us as well. And that's how we got to win all those Stanley Cups.
I also had the chance to ask Bryan Trottier and Lorne Henning about Al Arbour.
"Well, we thought of Al as our true leader. He was convincing. He spoke to us with conviction. He was fair. He was direct. He was a great motivator. He had great speeches. A lot of the things that he told us and taught us, we all use in our lives today. Whether it's being a father or being in business, those things are just disciplines that you can use in all facets of your life. He's a special man to all of us."
"When I played under Al, I was mostly a fourth line guy. Back in the day, fourth liners didn't play a lot, so we had to skate all the time in practice. Gary Howatt and I would be doing the extra skating, and whenever I thought we'd had enough, I'd slam my stick down. I didn't know it at the time, but Al said he knew practice was over whenever I used to get mad and slam my stick (laughs). At the time, Al was pretty standoffish, and not many guys really knew the other side of Al. But once I got to work with him as an assistant coach and see the other side, it turns out he is a funny, funny guy and a real special guy. He is just an awesome person and there is a lot of attachment there to him for each and every guy. He molded the team and he molded the guys. He's just a great man."
Current Islanders head coach Brad Shaw also had an opportunity to meet up with Al Arbour on Saturday, and he was kind enough to share some of their conversation with me.
"Al asked me if it was hard to coach players these days. I think the more you talk to guys who were around in that era, a lot has changed but a lot has stayed the same. You still need to get them to play to their best ability. You still need them to be consistent night in and night out. You still need to play to their strengths. Every team has things that they are good at or players who are more comfortable in certain situations. Guys that have lasted as long as Al has and were around the game as long as he's been ? I just like listening to them talk and the way they describe certain situations. There is always something to learn from them. These guys have forgotten more about the game than we will ever know. And that's invaluable information. That mentor relationship is something that anybody would get better with. It was very interesting. I asked Bill Torrey if he missed his old job, especially with this being trade deadline week. He said, "Yeah, I really miss it. This was always a fun week to be a GM".
Guys like Al Arbour and Bill Torrey did it all. They won championships. They built an organization from scratch and took it to where they thought it could get to. It's what we all sort of strive for. We're all in this thing to win championships, and these guys did it four times in a row. I don't think what they did will ever be matched again, and that makes it even more special."