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Arbour hits 80 with historical coaching legacy

by John Kreiser

He's in Florida now. With the exception of a one-game cameo in 2007 that gave him an even 1,500 games as coach of the New York Islanders, he hasn't been behind the bench since the spring of 1994.

But as he turns 80 on Thursday, Al Arbour's place as one of the great coaches in NHL history is more than secure.

Arbour did his coaching apprenticeship in St. Louis, where he went from a glasses-wearing thirty-something defenseman to a rookie coach with a team that had been swept in three straight Stanley Cup Finals. After 107 games over parts of three seasons, the Blues let him go -- but he wasn't out of work long.

The 1972-73 New York Islanders set NHL records for futility in their first season, with first-time coaches Earl Ingarfield and Phil Goyette behind the bench. That summer, GM Bill Torrey turned to Arbour to get the Islanders on the right track.

Legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour celebrated his 80th birthday Thursday. (Photo: Getty Images)

"I had known Al for a long time," Torrey said during a 2011 interview with MSG Network. "There are some people -- you just have a sense or a feel that they fit the situation. I think the most important thing we were looking at immediately was to rebuild our defense.

"There wasn't anyone available who in my judgment had better qualifications to build a defense than Al Arbour had. I wanted him to work with Denis Potvin, Dave Lewis, the young defensemen, and mold them into what he eventually did."

But one of the great coach-GM pairings of all-time almost never came to be.

"Bill Torrey asked me if I would be interested in coaching the Islanders," Arbour remembered years later. "I told him no. I said I had four kids and wouldn't want to move them to New York."

But after visiting Long Island for the first time -- and finding out it wasn't like New York City -- Arbour changed his mind and took the job.

The turnaround didn't happen right away. Arbour's team finished last in the overall standings again in 1973-74 -- but the Isles gave up 100 fewer goals and earned 56 points, up from 30 in their first season. All-Star defenseman Brad Park of the Rangers noted after the Isles finally beat their big-city rivals that, "They have a system. They look like a hockey team."

One year later, the Arbour-coached Islanders made their first playoff appearance – and promptly upset the Rangers, winning the deciding game in overtime. They went on to become only the second team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit when they beat Pittsburgh in seven games in the Quarterfinals, and nearly did it again against Philadelphia, forcing a seventh game in the Semifinals before losing.

With Torrey drafting future stars like Potvin, Clarke Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, and Arbour nurturing them, the Islanders quickly became one of the NHL's elite teams. They ended Montreal's run as regular-season champs in 1978-79, but fell to the Rangers in the Semifinals.

A year later, after a disappointing regular season, they caught fire after a late-season trade for center Butch Goring, going 8-0-4 after the deal. They ousted Los Angeles, Boston and Buffalo, then eliminated Philadelphia, the regular-season champions, in six games -- with Bob Nystrom's overtime goal giving the Isles the Cup.


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"Winning the Cup is a feeling that you really can't explain," said Arbour, who had won three as a player. "It may sink in in a few days."

Arbour and the Isles made sure they got to enjoy that feeling again. They won easily in 1981, survived a first-round scare from Pittsburgh the next spring, then swept Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in 1983 to become the first (and still only) U.S.-based team to win four consecutive championships.

Along the way, the Islanders became known as one of the great overtime teams in NHL history -- and Nystrom said a big reason was Arbour's philosophy about playing OT.

"Al always stressed, 'Let's go at them -- force, force, force. Attack them rather than fall back,'" Nystrom told when asked about Arbour's overtime strategy throughout his time with the Islanders. "He would say, 'The worst thing that can happen is that we lose -- let's not lose sitting back on our heels.'"

The Islanders came up short the next spring in the "Drive for Five," losing in five games to the Oilers in a rematch. They haven't been back since -- but they still own a record that Arbour is proud of.

"Our club won (an NHL record) 19 straight playoff series," Arbour said. "Do you know any other team that has done that?"

Arbour retired after the 1985-86 season, but returned at Torrey's behest when the Isles hit the skids early in the 1988-89 season. He got them back into the playoffs the following season, then coached them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993, ending the Penguins' drive for a third straight Stanley Cup with a seven-game victory in the Patrick Division Finals -- despite losing star center Pierre Turgeon in the previous round after he was injured by an illegal check from Washington's Hunter.

The Game 7 overtime winner was scored by David Volek, a player who Arbour stood up for when ownership wanted to put him on waivers.

"He scored that goal and the first thing I told that owner that night was, ‘How do you like David Volek now?'" Arbour said in a 2007 interview with Hockey Night in Canada.

Arbour retired after the 1994 playoffs and was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, but made one more appearance behind the bench 11 years later at the urging of then-coach Ted Nolan. It was his 1,500th game as Islanders coach -- and, appropriately, the Islanders rallied to beat Pittsburgh in overtime.

"This is an incredible gesture by Ted and the Islanders," Arbour said at the time. "I am flattered that Ted thought of me and I wouldn't miss this night for the world. I told the team that I do not want any pre-game fanfare."

The fanfare came after the game, when he was honored for his milestone appearance behind the Isles' bench. He still holds the NHL record for wins with one team (740), and his 782 career wins are second all-time to his mentor, Scotty Bowman.

Arbour has described the way he treated his players as "tough love," but long after he retired, those players still remember him fondly.

"He was the best coach I ever played for," Ray Ferraro, a center with that 1993 team and now an analyst for TSN, told "Al had the best feel for what the player needed or could handle -- kick in the (rear) or pat on the back ... he knew which (to use)."

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