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It's Arbour Day once again on the Island

by Evan Weiner

Al Arbour will return to coach the New York Islanders Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It isn't a leap year, but Arbour Day is fast approaching for a second time this year in Nassau County on Long Island.

Arbor Day in the United States is celebrated on the last Friday of April and is a civic holiday in Nebraska. In Ontario, where one-time New York Islanders coach Al Arbour grew up, it is celebrated from the last Friday in April into the first week of May.

Arbour Day on Long Island will be celebrated for a second time on the first Friday in November, and it will last through the next day when Al Arbour returns to coach the Islanders Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Arbor Day is a holiday when individuals and groups are urged to plant trees and then care for them. Back in 1973, Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey persuaded Arbour to take the coaching reigns of a team that had just finished its first NHL season with a 12-60-6 record, which was good for 30 points and the worst record in the League.

The Islanders then drafted Denis Potvin with the top selection in the 1973 draft, and Arbour began the process of nurturing and growing his team, a team that eventually would win four straight Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983.

Arbour coached 1,499 regular-season Islanders games, but that number just didn't look right to current Islanders coach Ted Nolan, and he decided to do something about it. Nolan felt Arbour should have a nice round number, like 1,500, so Arbour, who celebrates his 75th birthday Nov. 1, will sign a two-day contract on Nov. 2 and coach on Nov. 3 against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.

Arbour was many things when he coached the Islanders. He skated Potvin into the ground when he was a rookie back in 1973. He was totally hockey myopic, which his players caught onto quickly. He was tough, but he cared about his players and showed an unusual side when the team traded Denis Potvin’s brother, Jean, to the Cleveland Barons, along with J. P. Parise, for Wayne Merrick, Darcy Regier and a fourth-round pick in the 1978 draft on Jan. 10, 1978.

Arbour cried.

It seems that Jean Potvin was Arbour's favorite Islander, although Jean had no idea just how much Al liked him. After all, Arbour didn't exactly show much love for him one night after Montreal Canadiens superstar Guy Lafleur skated around him and went on to score a goal. Arbour brought up something about Jean's heritage or reason for living at the time.

But Arbour cried when he said goodbye to Jean Potvin that day in 1978.

"We had a pretty good relationship,” Potvin said. “He was like a second father to me and that kind of surprised me. Forget seeing Al cry, usually you would never even see him smile. He was pretty upset when I was traded. He had a part in it, but I think he hated to see me go. Eventually he brought me back."

Potvin quickly realized how much he missed Arbour and the Islanders when he learned he was headed to Cleveland.

"That's exactly what I told Bill Torrey at the time," he said. "You have to be kidding. First of all, our oldest child, our first child was, I think, 22 days old, and I said, ‘How can you do this at a time like this and send me to Cleveland? This team is on the verge of bankruptcy.’ He said they weren’t anymore because the Gund (brothers) bought the team, I guess, a month or so before.

"That was like going to Alcatraz."

The first thing Jean Potvin noticed in Cleveland was how much he missed his old coach. Apparently, the feeling was mutual.

“The thing that really stuck out, the Montreal Canadiens, and Montreal was the best team on the face of the earth, came to Cleveland for one game and there was like 1,200 people in a 20,000-seat building, so you knew hockey was dying a very quick death in Cleveland. I think whoever brought the franchise to the Cleveland area (Richfield, Ohio) thought that putting it in the middle of Akron, Cleveland and Canton was going to be a great spot, that they would attract from all three cities. It didn’t work out.

"J. P. and I would look around and shake our heads at some of the players’ total lack of dedication and you kind of got a quick understanding of why this team was going nowhere quickly. (Cleveland coach) Jack Evans was a nice man and he had a very good career in the NHL, but Al Arbour was so organized and everything was thought of. Every practice, there was a purpose to it. There were systems in everything you did, whether it was penalty killing or the power play. Depending who you played against, an offensive-minded defenseman or a team or a defensive-minded team, he had strategies for everything.”

Potvin finished out the year in Cleveland, then joined the merged Barons-Minnesota North Stars franchise and played in Minnesota in 1978-79. He left "Alcatraz" on June 10, 1979 and returned to his hockey family and hockey father, the Islanders and Arbour.

It turns out Al Arbour isn't ready for a lounge chair quite yet.  Arbour will sign a two-day contract on Nov.2 and then coach his 1,500th regular-season game with the Isles on Nov. 3 against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.

"That was like a dream come true,” Potvin said. “I will never forget those two years because, although I didn't have much of a role, we won the first two Cups. My role was probably more in the locker room than it was on the ice. Bill and Al asked me if I was willing to do that and I gladly did it because we had such a good bunch of guys. I think a lot of the guys in the room liked me and that is one of the reasons I was allowed to come back. It was fabulous."

Arbour wanted "Potsy" back; it really was that simple. He missed Potvin and thought he was a missing ingredient in the dressing room.

"Well, I think he did," said Potvin of Arbour's reasoning. "Bill Torrey said after we lost to Toronto (in the 1978 playoffs), that was a shock, and the Rangers (in the semifinals in 1979), that was a shock. If you remember, they had finished with many more points than the Montreal Canadiens, who had just finished winning four Cups, and they get beat out by the Rangers.”

Something was missing, and the Islanders decided it was Potvin.

”Bill told me, ironically enough, ‘Your name came up several times … that we really miss Potsy in the locker room. He wasn't afraid to speak up, maybe like a good coach in the locker room, so to speak.’ I think Al was all smiles and Al also knew that bringing me back was not going to be a negative."

The Islanders added Burch Goring at the trade deadline in 1980, and that was the start of a four-year run as Stanley Cup champions.

That four-season run didn’t go unnoticed by a young National Football League coach at the time. The New York Giants’ Bill Parcells, who hadn’t yet established himself as a “name” coach, looked to Arbour’s accomplishments with awe and marvel. Parcells said Arbour was the best coach of any sporting team in the New York area.

Arbour coached 1,038 Islanders games between 1973 and 1986, when he retired; he returned, replacing Terry Simpson 27 games into the 1987-88 season, and finished up in 1994. His teams won 739 games, made 15 playoff appearances and won four Stanley Cups. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1996. Arbour also was a member of four Stanley Cup teams and was the last player to wear glasses during a game. It seems that Arbour could not get contact lens in his eyes, so he opted to wear glasses, which led to his nickname, “Radar.”

Nolan’s gesture of allowing Arbour behind the Islanders’ bench for one last time may start a trend like the one that has developed in the NFL, where a player who starred for a team and then left signs a ceremonial one-day contract to allow him to retire as a member of the team where he had his glory days.

In the NHL in 2001-02, Ottawa Senators coach Jacques Martin gave up the reigns for two games to allow his then-assistant, Roger Neilson, to coach the 999th and 1,000th games of his NHL career.

There is a question, though, surrounding Arbour’s return. Number 739, the number of wins in his Islanders career, is retired and hangs from the Nassau Coliseum rafters. Should the Islanders beat Pittsburgh Saturday night, will the team have to “unretire” the number 739 and replace it with 740?

Guess that question will have to be answered after Arbour Day is complete.

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