Legendary coach Al Arbour was master motivator with special touch
Safe to say that Al Arbour, who passed away on Friday morning at 82 after a battle with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, will be universally eulogized as the legendary coach who guided the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Fair enough. After all, behind the bench is where Alger made his name in the game.
He earned his spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame back in 1996 as a leader of men. A winner of 19 consecutive playoff series, a mark that hasn’t been equaled since and never will be, and second all time in both wins (782) and games coached (1,607). He racked up 1,500 of them behind the Islanders bench (a single-franchise record), a nice round figure he achieved when Ted Nolan, who was coaching the Isles at the time, noticed that Al had retired in 1994 at 1,499 and invited him back for one more kick at the can. Arbour agreed to the one-game stint and on Nov. 3, 2007 he led New York to a 3–2 win over the Penguins.
Arbour earned his longevity via the coaching acumen he absorbed along the way from men like Scotty Bowman and Joe Crozier and Punch Imlach. He was a superb defensive tactician who also knew how to rev up an offense. He preached mental toughness and the ability to overcome adversity. But Arbour’s hallmark as a coach was his decency. That’s not to say he was soft, but he recognized there was a person underneath the sweater.
“I think Al was the greatest coach of all time in that he balanced the winning with a personal touch,” former Islander Chico Resch said in a 2011 interview. “I think those factors have become more important than ever.
“When you are dealing with modern-day athletes who are used to not being told no, given a tremendous amount and not being severely disciplined you really have to do it with a personal touch and tact. Al was always the best at that. And he could do it in a way that he never left the person he was doing it with embarrassed. They always say Scotty Bowman and Al were the greatest and I’d pick Al just because of his personal touch.”
“He was the best coach I ever played for,” Ray Ferraro told NHL.com. “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].”
Among his brilliant touches were putting an egg in the pants of a player he felt needed to be more physical, the message being the player would surely come out of a corner with the egg uncracked. He also left plates of dog biscuits in the lockers of players he felt were playing, well, like dogs.
“Al could really get on you,” recalled Denis Potvin, the Islanders’ Hall of Fame defenseman who drew the coach's ire early in his career while Arbour was molding him into the team’s captain. “He’d say, ‘Potvin, I know you skate like you have a piano on your back, but don’t stop to play the thing.’ Not much you can say to that.”
Defenseman Ken Morrow, who joined the Isles from the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team, really appreciated Arbour after enduring the infamous tirades of team USA coach Herb Brooks. “I didn't respond well to screaming," Morrow told SI.com. “Al took a quiet, patient approach and basically just let me play though I got called to his office once. OK, maybe more than once (laughs), and I felt his wrath. I didn't want to feel it again."
Former forward Butch Goring, widely recognized as the missing piece in the Islanders' dynastic puzzle after his arrival at the 1980 trade deadline, says Arbour was a brilliant tactician, especially when it came to shaking up line combinations, and a master at making sure his teams peaked just in time for the playoffs. "One January we were going really well and Al said to me, 'How am I going to slow this train down?’” Goring recalls. “He felt we were peaking too early.”
But most of all, Arbour fostered a camaraderie among the players that also included him. “You never wanted to let him down or your teammates down,” says Morrow, who fondly recalls team dinners on the road when their coach lingered after the meal, talking hockey and telling stories. “I always made sure I was there. He drew you to him because of the person he was. There was nothing phony about him.”
Before turning the Islanders into a dynasty, Arbour worked wonders in his first gig with the expansion St. Louis Blues, as Mark Mulvoy chronicled in a 1972 feature for SI. Normally mild mannered, after being hired by the Blues for the second time, replacing Sid Abel, he got into a fracas with fans in Philadelphia while pursuing a ref he thought had been favoring the Flyers.
As defenseman Bob Plager recalled, “When Al chased after [referee John] Ashley, it was the first time all year someone had stood up for us. It brought us together. Now we were ready to stand up for ourselves and be counted. It really was what I’d call the making of a hockey team.”
In the beginning Arbour was just another guy trying to earn his place in the NHL. There won’t be much attention paid to that today, and maybe that’s understandable considering that he scored only 12 career goals and 70 points over 626 games split between Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and St. Louis. But the way Arbour played the game informed the man he became as a coach.
Don Cherry, who won the Calder Cup with Arbour as part of the 1964-65 Rochester Americans, once described him as a player who never got the recognition he deserved. “He was smart as a whip. He really knew the game.”
“He was the kind of guy who didn’t have great stats but teams always traded for him just before the playoffs,” Plager wrote in his book, Tales From The Blues Bench.
In today’s game Arbour would have been a valuable commodity, a defensive defenseman who could be counted on to make the right play under pressure. But back then, with just six teams and fewer than 40 jobs to be had, he was a journeyman who spent almost as much time riding the buses as he did enjoying the good life in the NHL. He wasn’t particularly skilled, and he carried the stigma of being the only guy in the league who wore glasses on the ice (hence his bookish nickname "Radar” that was bestowed upon him by Jack Adams, his coach with Detroit, who called him a “blind-eyed, CinemaScope, radar, sonuvabitch”). But Arbour was strong and steady, always in position and as fearless as anyone in the game. Fans and teammates would marvel at his willingness to block shots while wearing those glasses.
And he was a winner. He helped Detroit, Chicago and Toronto to Stanley Cup championships before getting another shot at the NHL at 35 when expansion created six teams’ worth of new opportunities. He was coaxed out of retirement two weeks into the 1967-68 season and was named the captain of the expansion St. Louis Blues where he thrived under Bowman. “He had the ability to dig deeper when he had to, to make himself go harder when he was hurting or when the team needed him,” Bowman said. “That’s toughness.”
But even the toughest among us can only battle for so long.
Rest in peace, Al.