Legendary New York Islanders coach Al Arbour, 82, passed away on Friday. He took a team and accomplished something never done by an American team, even by the Rangers, their big brother across town.
“Al will always be remembered as one of, if not the, greatest coaches ever to stand behind a bench in the history of the National Hockey League,” stated Islanders President and General Manager Garth Snow. “The New York Islanders franchise has four Stanley Cups to its name, thanks in large part to Al’s incredible efforts. From his innovative coaching methods, to his humble way of life away from the game, Al is one of the reasons the New York Islanders are a historic franchise. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to the entire Arbour family.”
Arbour deserves to be mentioned when anyone speaks about Scotty Bowman, who led the Detroit Red Wings to dominance in the late 1990s, and Joe Quenneville, who currently cemented a dynasty with the Chicago Blackhawks after they won their third cup in six years.
However, neither one can match Arbour’s greatest triumph: four straight Stanley Cups. He inherited a team only a year old that crashed in the first season. They lost 60 games, an NHL record. But there was a glimmer of hope with Billy Smith, Lorne Henning, and Bobby Nystrom. General Manager Bill Torrey refused all offers to trade the first-round pick. He instead kept it and chose Denis Potvin, a shining star often compared to Bobby Orr.
Torrey did not want to be just another expansion team that established teams could view as an easy win. The Rangers owned New York at the time. They are one of the Original Six teams and play at the historic Madison Square Garden.
The final piece of the puzzle was the coach. Torrey approached Arbour, coaching the St. Louis Blues at the time. He quickly agreed and it did not take long for him to move into history. Mike Bossy was Arbour’s first crucial decision. Teams passed on the forward, but Arbour convinced Torrey to choose Bossy, who ended up a crucial piece on the Islanders dynasty team.
In his first season, the team finished last, but showed major signs of life. Potvin won the Calder Memorial Trophy for top rookie and they defeated the New York Rangers for the first time.
“They have a system. They look like a hockey team,” declared Brad Park, defenseman for the Rangers.
With patience and Arbour’s brilliance behind the bench, the Islanders moved closer and closer every season. He won the Jack Adams Award as the top coach in 1979 while Bryan Trottier won MVP. Everything finally clicked in the 1979-1980 season. The Islanders captured their first of four Stanley Cups. In that time, Arbour led the Islanders to “19 straight playoff series victories, which still stands as the longest such streak in all of pro sports.”
Arbour retired in 1994 after he coached 1,499 games. The Islanders brought him back for one game on November 3, 2007, to coach his 1,500 game, which he won. He owns the record for most games coached and won (740) with one NHL team.
His death is even more bittersweet since the Islanders left behind their beloved Nassau Coliseum. The team receives a fresh start in Brooklyn for the 2015-2016 season.
But moves and changes will never change the history of the Islanders. They will always own those four straight Stanley Cups. They will always own the greatest period of one of sport’s greatest coaches.