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Islanders share memories of Al Arbour

Ceremony honors coach of 1980s dynasty, who died year ago

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- A year and a day after Al Arbour died, the New York Islanders gathered to share memories of their Hall of Fame coach.

A ceremony that lasted two hours was held Monday inside Arbour Rink, dedicated to the man who died Aug. 28, 2015 at the age of 82. With current Islanders captain John Tavares and defenseman Johnny Boychuk in attendance, Hockey Hall of Famers Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy reminisced about what Arbour meant to them. The pain remained visible one year later for the loss of Arbour, who was viewed as a parent by many of his players.

Arbour, who coached New York to 740 regular-season wins and four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83 (and a fifth appearance in the Final in 1984), left a lasting impression on that group of men he molded into a dynasty. After the service, forward Bob Nystrom, who scored the most important goal in Islanders history, in overtime of Game 6 to win the 1980 Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers, had tears streaming down his face while speaking with reporters.

"I get pretty emotional when I talk about Al," Nystrom said. "People talk about lessons and strategies and things like that, but we came here as a bunch of young kids, and he was like a father figure to most of us. I think the key word is that he taught us about life and how to become men, as well as being a hockey coach."

There would be no egos in Arbour's locker room, as Potvin pointed out during his speech. It was all about 20 players coming together with the goal of becoming a champion. If there was a time when Arbour had to come to the defense of his players, he would be there, standing on the front line.

"There's a lot of stories we could talk about Al, the warmth that he showed towards us," Potvin said. "As tough as he was, and everybody talks about how much of a disciplinarian he was, we all knew that. We all lived through it. But it's those other things, the warmth that came out.

"One time he got off the bus and attacked a mob at Madison Square Garden because one of them had thrown a beer bottle at the bus. He went out there, courageously, and you could see that that was totally a guy who just wanted to protect and love his players."

The love was reciprocal. It played a major role in the Islanders' success in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Arbour and the Islanders denied the Pittsburgh Penguins a chance for a third straight championship when they defeated Pittsburgh in seven games in the second round.

Those Penguins were coached by Scotty Bowman, Arbour's longtime friend and the NHL all-time leader with 1,244 victories. Bowman was among those at the service.

"The toughest thing for me as a coach in the NHL honestly was trying to coach against Al Arbour," Bowman said. "I knew what he meant to my career and the way I started as a young coach and the way I developed. Most of the things I did, he is the one reason that I did them. He stood up for fairness and he stood up for the right thing to do."

Bill Torrey, general manager of the Islanders dynasty and now a special adviser to the GM and an alternate governor for the Florida Panthers, hired Arbour in the summer of 1973 on the recommendation of former Islanders assistant GM Jim Devellano, who also was here Monday. It was the start of a partnership nobody could have envisioned.

"We had a unique relationship," Torrey said. "Whenever we had a difference of opinion, nobody else knew about it. The door was closed and we found a way to work it out. He learned, I learned. There will never be anyone just like this man. This is the third memorial on his passing a year ago. And believe me, no one deserves three memorials more than this man. That, I think, was his only hat trick in hockey."

For Torrey, the jokes quickly turned to tears.

"He will live on," Torrey said, his voice cracking. "His imprint, his philosophies, the legacy of Al Arbour lives on. And I miss him."

On Sunday, the anniversary of Arbour's passing, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky hosted a dinner for his family. Arbour's wife, Claire, showed Ledecky a necklace that features mementos from each of the eight Stanley Cup championships Arbour won, four as a player and another four as Islanders coach.

On Monday morning, Ledecky made her a promise.

"Claire, the best salute that we can give your husband and the Arbour family is when we win that fifth ring, and we will," Ledecky said. "And we will come and we will give you that pendant on your necklace representing the legacy of Al Arbour."

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