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Bill Torrey, Denis Potvin recall time with Al Arbour

by John Kreiser / Florida Panthers

Bill Torrey had to work hard to convince Al Arbour that he'd be the right man to coach the second-year New York Islanders.

Once he did, it turned into a marriage made in hockey heaven.

"We had a very special relationship, one I never regretted for a day," Torrey said of Arbour, who died Friday at age 82 in Sarasota, Fla. "Al Arbour was a special person. He was a special man. He was a great family man. He was a great hockey man. Outside of his family, nothing was more important to him than his players and his team."

Torrey, New York's general manager, needed all of his powers of persuasion to get Arbour to take over as coach after the expansion Islanders set NHL records for fewest points (30) and victories (12) in 1972-73.

It wasn't easy.

"It wasn't so much that I had to convince him; it wasn't so much that's been made that he hesitated about coming to Long Island," said Torrey, special adviser to the owner and alternate governor with the Florida Panthers. "But in our early discussions, he wanted to know what direction I was going in because we had obviously had a very poor first year.

"He was all about winning; how do we get it turned around? What could he do as a coach? We discussed philosophies and players, but the one thing about Al was that he was so positive [about] the direction we needed to go. Obviously, we were a very, very young team, but he liked the idea that we were building. I knew from my very first private meeting with him that I came away more determined than ever to convince him that this was a doable thing and that his role in it was pivotal. Once he said 'yes,' he never took a backwards step.

"The main thing to improve yourself, when you get young talent, is that it's given the right direction, the right discipline to grow as a group. No one was better at leading a group than Al Arbour."

With Torrey in the front office and Arbour behind the bench, the Islanders quickly took off. They advanced to the semifinals in 1975 and began a run of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1980. Their 19 consecutive playoff series victories from 1980-84 is a record that has not been challenged.

Arbour spent his playing career as a defenseman and was instrumental in the growth of Denis Potvin, who was the first player picked in the 1973 NHL Draft and became one of the cornerstones of the Islanders dynasty. He, Arbour and Torrey are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Al was a tremendous mentor, on and off the ice," said Potvin, who spent his entire career with the Islanders, played for Arbour from 1973-86 and is a broadcaster with the Panthers. "There are so many things that I can say about Al, in particular the fact that when I first met him I was 19 years old. He coached me for 13 consecutive years; I don't know too many athletes who've had that pleasure.

"Al Arbour was a man who left us not only feeling like champions, but left us with a lot of great memories we can carry on through life. Al used to say that the negative energy you're feeling, turn it into a positive energy. That has never left me, and I know many of my teammates feel the same way. He just never felt anything was insurmountable."

Few GM-coach combinations have worked as well for as long as Torrey and Arbour.

"Our association was one of the unique relationships in the history of the League," Torrey said. Though they had disagreements, he added, "once we closed the door and worked them out, we went forward together."

Torrey believes one major factor in Arbour's success behind the bench was his presence.

"He was big man, he was a strong man," he said. "He had a way that no matter what the circumstances were, good or bad, he had a way of expressing himself vocally that resonated with the team. … You're going to have bad days and bad times, but he never doubted the direction we were going in, and I think the players could see that this wasn't just words; this is something that this man believed in."

Torrey said his last visit with Arbour came shortly after the 2015 NHL Draft, hosted by the Panthers at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on June 26-27.

"Obviously, he wasn't in great health," Torrey said. "It was a special day for him. Even though I'm working for another team, I got an old Islanders golf shirt and put it on. When he saw the crest on it, he got a big smile on his face and did a thumbs-up.

"It's a day I will hang on to. We had a special relationship. We didn't always agree, but we never departed from one another without a hung and a handshake. I'm going to miss him. I won't forget him."

Author: John Kreiser | Managing Editor

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