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Maven's Memories: Al Arbour's Road to the Islanders

Looking back at Al Arbour's early life and playing career.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / New York Islanders

                 As far as I'm concerned, Al Arbour was the best coach there ever was --
          Goalie Glenn (Chico) Resch who played under Arbour with the Isles.

After watching the Islanders upset the Rangers in Round One of the 1975 playoffs for The Stanley Cup, pundits spent plenty of time analyzing why -- and how -- such a surprise result could have taken place.

One answer was what would become known as "The Usual Suspects." They comprised a vibrant group that would grow in talent and popularity over the years.Heroes were many, starting with the Glenn (Chico) Resch-Bill Smith goaltending tandem and on to sophomore Denis Potvin's emergence as a defensive stalwart as well as major offensive contributions from Jude Drouin, J.P. Parise and Clark Gillies, to name a few.  

But the Islanders still required a podium leader; someone who blended brains with a bold -- yet avuncular - personality. He would, of course, be the man behind the bench. 

Orchestrating this symphony of talents was the bespectacled coach, Al Arbour, who began his working career in an unlikely place, a Northern Ontario mine shaft. 

This was in Sudbury, Ontario during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a time when jobs were scarce and if a father wanted to put food on the table, he had to take whatever work he could get; with a little help from his son, if that were possible.

Alger Arbour was that son. He was born on November 1, 1932, attended Catholic school and -- in another time -- might well have gone on to university studies. But there was no money in the Arbour household for that.

Al was more interested in playing hockey and helping his parents stay financially afloat, so he did what came naturally up in that mineral-rich section of the North Country. He found a job with the same company that employed his father.

Helping his dad as an underground nickel smelter with the Sudbury Frood Mines was not exactly a romantic job. But when young Al emerged from the shaft he'd head to the nearest ice rink and hone his hockey skills to sharpness. That's what he really loved; hockey.

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

As luck would have it, a Detroit Red Wings scout spotted the tall, skinny kid wearing eyeglasses and offered him a chance to come south and play defense for the Windsor Spitfires, a Junior club located not far from Olympia Stadium, home of the Red Wings.

Although unspectacular, Al impressed with his steady, strong game and it eventually caught the eye of Red Wings boss, Jack (Jolly Jawn) Adams who gifted Arbour with his first pro contract in 1953. He was 20 years old at the time and oozed with enthusiasm.

"Naturally, I felt good about that," Arbour later revealed, "but I never thought that I had it made in hockey. The Wings were loaded with talent. They had defensemen like Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost; fellas who eventually would make the Hall of Fame."

Al was up against it trying to break into what was to become a dynastic Detroit lineup. From 1948-49 through 1954-55 -- the Red Wings would finish first seven times.  

Still, during the 1953-54 season, Al played in 36 regular season NHL games. That was the good news. The bad news was that he had trouble getting along with his boss.

On one occasion, Jack Adams took a dislike to Arbour's performance, blaming it on Al's need to wear spectacles. Adams stormed into the dressing room, stared at Al and shouted, "You blind-eyed, CinemaScope, radar, S.O.B." 

A shortened version of that outburst resulted in Arbour's nickname, "Radar."
 
Adams eventually dispatched Al to Detroit's farm team, the Edmonton Flyers, where his teammates included Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall and assorted other future NHL stars.

Finally, by 1957-58, he won over Adams and became a full-time big-leaguer, producing seven points and 104 penalty minutes. Glasses or no glasses, Al proved that he could play; and, what's more play really tough, if necessary.

Proof positive was a game on November 16, 1957 in which Arbour fought with large Ed Litzenberger of the Chicago Blackhawks. The ensuing 150-minute brawl ended with eight ejections and two Windy City police officers subduing the combatants on the ice.

After the Habs swept Detroit in four straight games during the Spring of 1958, Adams decided to clean house. Arbour was claimed by Chicago in the Intra-League Draft which proved to be a boon to both Al and the Hawks.

Even more rare, Al played in all 70 regular season games and received a point in voting for the Norris Trophy; almost unheard of for a fifth defenseman. A further boost was his appearance in six playoff games. He scored a goal, had two assists and 26 penalty minutes.

Being a Chicago backliner was a joy because Radar was working with future Hall of Famer Pierre Pilote as well as a solid bunch blue line bunch including Jack (Tex) Evans, Dollard St. Laurent and Moose Vasko. 

 Another Detroit expatriate -- and Al pal -- Glenn Hall now was his goalie in the Windy City.

"I loved playing in front of Glenn," said Arbour. "Nobody knew it at the time, but he was the one who invented the 'Butterfly' style of goaltending. He was as good as they came. Like an iron man between the pipes."

So good, in fact, that the Hall-Arbour axis became an integral part of Chicago's 1961 Stanley Cup-winning team. For extra added revenge, Radar's Hawks beat Jack Adams' team, the Red Wings in six games.

Despite Arbour's significant role in helping Chicago gain the title, the Black Hawks allowed him to be claimed by Toronto in the Intra-League draft. While it may have been taken as a slap at Al, he turned it into a "Thank You" card for his new boss, George (Punch) Imlach.

Respectful and appreciative of veteran players, g.m.-coach Imlach stacked his blue line corps with such senior NHL citizens as Tim Horton, Allan Stanley and Arbour. This time Al was as pleased as punch -- with Punch -- as the Leafs won their first Cup in 11 years.

"I appreciated Al," said Imlach. "Who wouldn't with his work ethic? But I had other younger guys coming up who could play more; Kent Douglas, Carl Brewer and Bob Baun."

Not a problem; at least not for Al. Demoted to Toronto's AHL farm team in Rochester, he led the Amerks to both the regular season championship and the Calder Cup.

"Sure, I was getting older," Radar recalled, "but I still enjoyed the game and felt that I could contribute."

Then, he got big-time lucky. When the NHL expanded from six to twelve teams in 1967, the St.Louis Blues needed defensemen. The Mound City outfit's new general manager Lynn Patrick chose Arbour for his starting blue line unit.

"It was a renaissance for Al," said Zack Weinstock, my co-author on the Islanders-Rangers Rivalry book. "He went from Original Six afterthought to Expansion darling."

At age 35, Arbour not only emerged as the Blues best defenseman but also team captain. His latest coach, Scotty Bowman, appreciated Radar more than any mentor with whom Al had previously worked and the two made beautiful music together. 

In 1968 the Blues gained a playoff berth and reached the Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens. Although the Habs beat St. Louis in a four-game sweep, every contest was decided by a single goal.

Under Arbour's captaincy, St. Louis reached the Final again in 1969 and 1970, bowing out each time in four straight. No question, his playing days were numbered and when Bowman chose to move into a managerial role Arbour became head coach in 1970.

"Scotty upped and went on a scouting trip," Al reflected. "He turned the reins over to me and I coached 50 games, then came back to play 22 games, I figured that I could help more in a playing capacity,"  

Although Bowman finished the season behind the bench, Scotty and owner Sid Salamon III agreed that Arbour would return to coaching for the 1971-72 season. But under the Salamon family -- to Al's detriment -- the Blues front office became nothing short of chaotic.

Finally, on November 7, 1972, Salamon did Al a favor and fired him.

Almost immediately the Atlanta Flames offered him a scouting gig and Al accepted -- until something better came along. Sure enough, Bill Torrey showed up asking Radar to become Islanders coach.

"He wasn't exactly excited about by the prospect," said Torrey. "I had to do a lot of convincing."

Arbour: "At first my wife had our doubts about the offer. I thought Long Island was just like New York City -- overcrowded and dirty. But, almost by accident, we changed our minds.

"We happened to be down in Florida and met some friends who told us that the Island was terrific; They lived there; so we decided to take a look. We changed our minds after seeing the beaches, the golf courses and all the other nice things."

On June 10, 1973 Arbour signed on with the Islanders and immediately laid down the law; starting with a series of rules that would last throughout his stewardship. 

Discipline, teamsmanship and hard work were his orders of the day. This was evident on the first day of training camp in September 1973 after team photos were taken.

"After the picture-taking, Al said we'd have a 'light skate' but that 'light skate' lasted two-and-a-half hours," Bob Nystrom remembered. "He meant business and, from that moment on, the discipline level changed from mediocre to tense."

Another lesson quickly learned was that the new coach would play no favorites. The team's top draft pick, Denis Potvin, proved an immediate challenge for Radar.

"You don't put handcuffs on a player like Denis," Al explained. "You encourage him to develop his entire game."

Under Arbour's tutelage, Potvin became an NHL star in only his second year. Denis proved a major asset, helping beat the Rangers but never did Potvin receive special treatment from his mentor. If anything, Arbour seemed to work Denis harder than any member of the team.

"Al decided he'd use me as a model," Denis told me. "He wanted to show the other guys that he played no favorites and that picking on me was his way of getting that message across to the rest of the team -- through me. In me, he found a lightning rod; and I went along with it."

So did every other member of the team and, as a result, the Islanders moved on from their victory over the Rangers to an even more arresting and more unlikely -- triumph in their second playoff round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For this one, Al Arbour had to rely on every coaching trick he had learned from his Junior days in Windsor to the Stanley Cup-winning seasons with Detroit, Chicago and Toronto.

But learn he did -- as did his Islanders.

LISTS: AL ARBOUR AS THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR -- TWO CLASSIC TALES

1. AL, YOU FORGOT SOMETHING: Ed Westfall played six years under Al Arbour and, among other things, the Captain recalled that his coach was notorious for being forgetful.
"One night," Number 18 noted, "Al took it to an extreme."

After a particularly difficult loss, Arbour avoided talking to his players as well as to the media. He stormed out of the Coliseum and drove to his home in Cold Spring Harbor. Still fuming over the game, he opened his car door and then, suddenly, remembered that he had forgot something.

Westfall: "Al then realized that someone was missing -- his wife, Claire. He had left Claire back at the Coliseum. Naturally, he drove back and got her. But that told us about Al's intensity when it came to winning and losing hockey games!"

2. AL, OUT-RACED BY HIS RUNAWAY CAR: After a playoff game in Buffalo, the Islanders returned by charter to their small home airport in Suffolk County. Al had to get a load of video equipment into his car. To make it simple, he decided to leave the equipment near the plane and drive his car to it and then load the video stuff..

After reaching the parking lot, he then had to drive his car to the runway gate and flip it open. 
Bob Nystrom recalled the episode: "As Al flipped open the gate, his car somehow slipped into gear and began moving forward as if Radar was behind the wheel; which he wasn't.

"The car headed straight for the airfield while Al chased it across the runway, heading for an airplane. His car smashed into the tail of the old plane, breaking its rudder. Meanwhile, Al had stumbled and separated his shoulder.

"From that point on, we'd give him this needle: 'Hit any planes today, Al?'"

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