The New York Islanders family lost a patriarch last August 28th, as legendary Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour passed away. He was 82.
Arbour led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83 and a fifth straight Finals in 1984. He is second on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list (782) with 740 coming behind the Islanders’ bench. To the players who sat directly in front of him, Arbour was more than a coach. For many, he was a father figure and mentor, greatly revered by some of the game’s greatest players.
Three members of the Islanders’ dynasty years and the Hockey Hall of Fame, General Manager Bill Torrey, captain Denis Potvin and broadcaster Jiggs McDonald, took time Friday to celebrate the life of the man affectionately known as “Radar.”
Torrey was the Islanders GM from 1972-92 and is the man responsible for bringing Arbour to Long Island. There was some initial hesitation from Arbour, but after their first private meeting, Torrey was convinced he found his coach, the one man who could execute his plan and lead the Islanders to greatness.
“His role in it was pivotal,” Torrey said. “Once he said yes, he never took a backwards step. He treated his team like a family. You have good days and bad days, but you’re going together as a team, as a group and you don’t falter. He set the tone from day one. He never took a backwards step and expected the team wouldn’t. Day by day and step by step you could see the influence that he had.”
It was an influence that hit home with his players, including Potvin, who he coached for 13 seasons, the entirety of the defenseman’s career. Potvin said Arbour was a father figure for him and many of his teammates during the dynasty years.
“He was a tremendous mentor on and off the ice,” Potvin said. “My dad, who passed away several years ago, said if I had to leave you to another dad, Al Arbour is the right guy for you. I’m sad at this moment but grateful for the time I had with Al, both good and tough at times, but all of it was certainly worthwhile.”
Torrey echoed the same sentiment, saying they had a special relationship and that he too was grateful for a life spent closely tied to Arbour.
Arbour, a big, strong man by Torrey’s account, had a presence in the locker room. He expressed himself vocally, but the words – both good and bad – never fell on deaf ears. Torrey said Arbour had a genuine, deep-rooted belief in his team and was able to get everyone else to buy in.
“The players could see these weren’t just words, Torrey said. “This was something this man believed deeply.”
He radiated positive energy.
“He just never felt that anything was insurmountable,” Potvin said. “Al used to say that negative energy you’re feeling, turn it into a positive energy. That has never left me and I know my teammates feel the same way. He was a man that left us feeling like champions.”
Arbour is known for his innovations – he was one of the first coaches to use video scouting – but potentially his biggest strength was motivating his players and unlocking all of their potential.
“He was a sports psychologist before we even knew the meaning of the word, or anybody went by the label of a sports psychologist,” McDonald said. “He knew what he could get out of you with a pat on the back or a kick in the hockey pants. He could read his players and people.”
As far as reading his team, it’s been said that Arbour always knew when to prop them up and when to bring them back down to Earth.
“He never let the team get too high after a win or winning a series and going into the next one. Or during a losing streak he never let them get too low either,” McDonald said. “He always had a way of circumventing situations before they became full blown.”
But while he was known for old-school discipline, McDonald said Arbour was hardly a curmudgeon.
“He was so approachable,” McDonald said. “I don't know if there was anyone at that time or even now that there was a more approachable guy in the coaching profession than Al. I'm talking about as a reporter or a broadcaster being able to go to him, get information or get quotes. He always had time for anyone. ‘Al, do you have just a second?’ 'Sure.' He was as down-to-earth, just a gem. Just a great, great person.”
Torrey and Potvin said the same Friday – that Arbour was a great man – and they weren’t alone. Arbour received glowing praise from numerous alumni last season, including Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies. He was a man who had a profound impact on many lives, which is why Friday was such a difficult day for so many.
“It’s certainly a tough day,” Torrey said. “A day that certainly hits home for me. Al Arbour was a special person and a special man in all of our lives.”
“I never regretted a day [with Al],” he said. “We didn’t always agree, but we never departed without a hug and a handshake. Obviously I’m going to miss him, but I won’t forget him.”