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Islanders alumni celebrate Arbour's life

More than 30 former players share memories of Hall of Fame coach, who died last August

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

HUNTINGTON, N.Y. -- Clark Gillies stood before a packed crowd at St. Patrick's Church on Friday to deliver a eulogy for Al Arbour, the Hall of Fame coach who led the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups. A 15-minute tribute concluded with a reading of the poem "The Dash," written by Linda Ellis. Gillies once heard retired Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz recite it at a conference; the message speaks volumes about the man known as "Radar."

The poem discusses the importance of living a life of purpose, the dash between the years of one's existence, and how the appreciation of loved ones must always take precedent over material goods.

Holding back tears, Gillies, the Hall of Fame forward who provided scoring and muscle during the Islanders' dynasty years in the early 1980s, spoke for everyone who played under Arbour, who died on Aug. 28, 2015, at age 82.

"Al," Gillies said, "thank you for letting me share your dash."

More than 30 Islanders alumni coached by Arbour took part in a two-day celebration of his life. A reception was held at the Fox Hollow Inn in Woodbury, N.Y., on Thursday before the Mass on Friday honored a man and a career that featured four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, five straight trips to the Final and an NHL-record 19 consecutive playoff series wins.

"It's extremely special to get all the guys from four decades who Al coached or touched in some way," said Pat LaFontaine, who began his NHL career under Arbour in 1984 and is now the League's vice president of development and community affairs. "To have a ceremony like this, I know [wife] Claire and the Arbour family, I know it meant a lot. This was Al's church. I think he came here to pray a lot; mainly to pray, 'What am I going to do with these guys? I need some help.'"

Joe McMahon worked for the Islanders for two decades, beginning as a stick boy in 1983 at age 15 and later as an equipment manager, and helped LaFontaine organize the event. One reason behind the gathering was that many Islanders alumni could not attend Arbour's funeral in Florida last summer because of a hurricane that hit the area.

The day of the funeral, however, brought sunny skies, and it was again sunny Friday. When the Mass started, Rev. Stephen Donnelly referenced the sun peeking through and at one point shining right through the ceiling in the church.

"I do believe Al was up there making sure we had a beautiful weather day," McMahon said.

"It's been very emotional. When I got the call when Al had first passed, it was very difficult. But over the course of the last few months I kept in close touch with Claire and the kids. We wanted to make sure that we put on something that Al would be looking down smiling on us and saying, 'That was perfect.' I believed we accomplished that as alumni this weekend."

The two-day tribute was also a time to reminisce about what made Arbour unique. A common thread was how his nickname, "Radar," fit because he was always on top of everything. Gillies recalled weighing 218 pounds the day he was selected with the fourth pick of the 1974 NHL Draft. He reported to his first training camp seven pounds heavier and Arbour noticed, so he asked him why.

"Needless to say, I spent probably the next three days after practice skating with [defenseman Jean Potvin]," Gillies said. "It was a message to me that you better be what you're supposed to be. He got his message across very clearly that there will be no slacking off, no 'do whatever you think you can do,' because I'll be watching."

Goaltender Glenn Resch began his NHL career with the Islanders in 1973 and played nearly eight seasons under Arbour. On one occasion, Resch, scheduled to start against the Toronto Maple Leafs, was secretly reading a newspaper between his legs during a meeting following the morning skate.

Or so it seemed.

"I think I'm pulling a fast one on Al," Resch said. "So I'm looking down reading and then he says to me, 'What did I just say, Chico? You weren't listening, were ya?'

"I said no. He said, 'You know what? I know I said you were going to start, but I'm going to start [Billy Smith]. I thought, 'Wow, that's fair.' If I don't want to step up and be an attentive player on this team I have to pay the consequences.

"There wasn't an aspect of the game that he missed. Not the strategy, not the discipline, not the joy of the wins or the pain of the losses. He just made you feel like you were something more than just a hockey player, a guy stopping pucks."

Arbour enhanced his legacy when he led the Islanders to the Wales Conference Final during the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They upset the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the Patrick Division Final, a victory that was more remarkable considering the absence of 58-goal scorer Pierre Turgeon. He was injured during the previous series after a blindside hit by Washington Capitals forward Dale Hunter in the clinching game and missed all but a few shifts of the series.

"[Al] knew how to handle it," said Derek King, a forward on the '93 team. "We never knew how to handle winning like that. He just kept our feet on the ground. I think that was probably the biggest reason why maybe we beat Pittsburgh when we shouldn't [have]. Obviously we fell short against Montreal but, still, he was great on the bench. He was so calm and patient, and you learn from that as a player."

Arbour was so beloved that some alumni traveled at their own expense, including Resch from Minnesota, Bob Bourne from British Columbia and Patrick Flatley from Toronto. They were reunited as one and thankful to share Arbour's dash.

"I'll never forget this, ever," said Potvin, who played on the Islanders' Cup-winning teams in 1980 and '81. "I thought it was a gorgeous service. I thought Chico [Resch] was great. [Gillies'] eulogy was amazing and I know how much it meant to Claire. It's just a wonderful celebration.

"Everybody's life is busy, but for this guy we put it all aside."

Tweet from @keeperofthecup: At the Memorial of 8 x #stanleycup champion and @HockeyHallFame member Al Arbour @NHL @NYIslanders

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