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Maven's Memories: Al Arbour's [First] Last Hurrah

Stan Fischler details Al Arbour's decision to step down as Islanders coach after the 1985-86 season

by Stan Fischler StanFischler /

  *The Islanders Got Old -- George Vescey, New York Times, 1985*

It had to happen sooner or later.

Father Time was catching up to the Nassau heroes who owned an untouchable league record, having won an unprecedented 19 consecutive playoffs series. 

In the spring of 1985, Al Arbour's skaters were happy to escape with an unprecedented come-from-behind first round win over the Capitals. But in the second round Radar's troops were ousted by Philadelphia in five games.

"The veterans will have to make way for fresh legs," wrote Vescey in the *New York Times. "But while they were together, this team was special on and off the ice."

No individual was more special than the bespectacled man behind the bench. But even Radar began questioning the march of time and how it was affecting his work. He seemed to sense that 1985-86 would mark his last hurrah.

For at least two years Arbour was at least thinking retirement. His boss Bowtie Bill Torrey talked Al out of it once but the get-me-out-here thought kept coming back like a song; for players and Bill Torrey as well.

"I had a feeling Al was going to retire after we lost the 1984 Final round to Edmonton," wrote Mike Bossy in his autobiography, Boss. "When we were knocked out of the second round a year later I was sure he had had enough."

Apparently not.

When training camp opened in September 1985, the redoubtable Radar was back at his perennial podium, charting another -- hopefully -- playoff season.

"I'm not ready to be packed in mothballs yet," he told the media, which always were delighted to deal with the straight shooter behind the bench.

Video: Islanders: Al Arbour: The Father of the Dynasty

Bossy: "No matter how you shake it, Al still maintained the respect of every player. But even his optimism obscured the obvious. We needed a major overhaul."

More easily said than done.

For starters, there was nothing crotchety about Bossy. His stick would gun 61 goals and 123 points. Sidekick Bryan Trottier was good for an appetizing 96 points. And peach-faced Pat LaFontaine was living up to his notices.

When the 1985-86 Isles-Rangers rivalry resumed it was as keen as ever -- so was LaFontaine. At the Coliseum on October 19, 1985 Patty beat the Blueshirts from the high slot for the 5-4 game-winner with only 24 seconds left.

Still there was concern about the aging aces. Bow Tie Bill and Radar were beginning to see the light and realized that the team had to make moves. Heroes of Cups past had to go; but who and when?

This was painful for the high command because -- as paternal heads of this hockey family -- Torrey and Arbour felt a sentimental attachment to their former champs.

Exhibit A was John Tonelli, left wing extraordinaire whose collection of highlight efforts was filled with superior drama. But Johnny T's wheels
were showing signs of turning flat.

"Tonelli had to go," said one newsman covering the team at the time. "but it wasn't an easy move for Torrey nor, for that matter, Arbour."

Bow Tie Bill finally sent Tonelli to the Calgary Flames in exchange for defenseman Steve Konroyd and forward Rich Kromm. Arbour took it hard and Al's sidekick Darcy Regier remembered that fateful trade day well.

"Al so appreciated John as a player," said Regier, "yet he knew that Johnny had to be dealt because that's part of the hockey business. That morning Al invited me to breakfast but I don't think he said two words on the way to the diner."

"I knew he was upset and just needed somebody to talk to so we sat down and he told me about the trade. He told me that he found it incredibly tough to deal with -- I'll never forget that."

Adding to the number of sentimental journeys were the departures of defenseman Dave Langevin to Minnesota on waivers and the outright release of rugged Gord Lane.

Meanwhile, to prod his club, Arbour tried every trick not to mention an occasional insult such as suggesting that his players "should be fitted with ballet tights so they can tiptoe around here." It didn't resonate with the team and, as a result, at a meeting the following day, Radar cleared the air and all was forgiven and forgotten.

Al also would have liked to forget the last act of his glorious tenure even though he managed to steer his club into another playoff berth.

Once again the Washington Capitals would challenge the Nassaumen in the opening best-of-five opening round. And once again the Caps jumped into a two-win lead.

But this time around, Radar's miracle machine jammed. When his club lost Game Three -- and the series -- in Uniondale it was a stunning blow to the coach, his players and the fans alike.

After all, this was the first time in franchise history that the club was swept in a playoff series. The handwriting was on the wall and the message was unmistakeable to the peerless leader. He knew what to do.

After 13 seasons with the Islanders, Al called it a career. He told Bow Tie Bill of his intentions and his boss responded by knighting Radar with the title, Vice President of Player Development. 

Radar called his new position "a cushy job" and then went about the business of helping Torrey find a replacement for the man who developed the Islanders into a dynasty.

Both understood that the challenge of finding a reasonable facsimile of Arbour would be roughly as difficult as swimming the Atlantic Ocean from Jones Beach to Southhampton, England.


1. NO MORE CHALLENGES: Having led the team to four straight Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series victories, Al had no more NHL mountains to conquer.

2. FATIGUE: Even after sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in four straight for a fourth Cup in 1983, Arbour was exhausted. He thought retiring then and there.
The pressure never abated thereafter.

3. STALE MESSAGES: After coaching, Hall of Famers -- not to mention ordinary players -- for ten years or more, Al really had run out of rah-rah remarks. Even his gratuitous kick-in-the-pants "ballet tights" line fell flat.

4. FAMILY: The time had come for Radar to spend more relaxing time with his adoring wife, Claire, and their children.

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