SI Vault: Old Sarge Al Arbour Becomes A General
Hockey Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour passed away on Aug. 28, 2015 at the age of 82. Though he was best known for leading the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups and an NHL record 19 consecutive playoff series wins, he also worked wonders as the coach of the St. Louis Blues from 1970-73. This feature, which originally ran in the Jan. 31, 1972 issue of Sports Illustrated looks at that earlier time in his career. To subscribe, click here.
When Sid Salomon III merrily fired Bill McCreary as coach of the St. Louis Blues on Christmas Day and replaced him with former Coach Al Arbour, the gag around town was that Arbour would have the job for 25 games or 60 days, whichever came first, and then it would be Scotty Bowman’s turn again. Even Sid the Third, as the 34-year-old executive vice-president of the Blues prefers to be called, had to laugh. After all, McCreary was the fourth coach he had either fired or kicked upstairs within a span of 62 games—following, in rapid order, Arbour, Bowman and Sid Abel—and now he was starting all over with Arbour once more. In his wildest dreams Charlie Finley never imagined such a wipeout.
The real joke, though, may be on Sid the Third, for Arbour—the coach he pushed out a year ago, the coach who “lacked color and charisma,” the coach who was a “loyal, dutiful sergeant but would never be a general”—has rescued the Blues from the depths of disaster and, at the same time, kept Salomon, a scratch golfer, away from the links.
Sid the Third usually bolts off to Miami Beach when things are not going well for the Blues. There is nothing like 36 holes at LaGorce to help him forget all those losses and all the grumbling about the player trades he made, and there is nothing like the surf outside the Salomon-owned Golden Strand Hotel for washing his hands of another coaching problem. But now Arbour has to come along and spoil it.
Thanks to Arbour, St. Louis has been the hottest expansion club in the NHL for the last month. A sixth-place team plummeting toward seventh when Arbour assumed control, the Blues moved into third place in the West Division last Saturday night by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 1–0 on Defenseman Billy (Wuff ’n Weddy) Plager’s first goal of the season. It was the Blues’ sixth win in seven games. Poor Sid the Third. He may not get back to LaGorce until after the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Stated very simply, Arbour has converted total chaos into workable order. “He just got us organized,” says Garry Unger, the long-haired blond center, who had 26 goals as the week ended—and someday may make Missourians forget Red Berenson. “We’ve got about a dozen new players on this team, and now you wouldn’t even know it.” Defenseman Bob Plager, Billy’s brother, is more emphatic in his praise of Arbour. “Until Al returned as coach,” he says, “we were always lost on the ice. We had no breakout plays, no passing plays, no spirit, no nothing. Our practices were awful. They were too short, for one thing, and we never worked on anything. All we did was scrimmage.”
Long, hard, organized workouts helped in the technical areas, but the job of instilling spirit into his players was a very painful experience for Arbour. So painful, in fact, that he needed 10 stitches to close a wound in his head. The Blues were playing the Flyers at Philadelphia, and in the second period Referee John Ashley made a few calls that Arbour and his players thought were one-sided. At the end of the period, with his team trailing 2–0 (this coming after a 9–1 loss to New York the previous night), Arbour stepped onto the ice and began to follow Ashley toward the referee’s exit. When Ashley noticed Arbour, he immediately gave him a two-minute penalty.“Keep following him,” Bob Plager told his coach. “You’ve already got the two minutes, and he won’t give you any more.”
As Arbour pursued Ashley off the ice, a Philadelphia fan emptied a beer cup over the coach’s head. Plager and several other Blues charged toward the exit to help defend their coach. Instant riot. Arbour had his head gashed open, there were charges of police brutality, and later Arbour and some of his players spent part of the night in jail. “I was in the doctor’s room getting stitched up,” Arbour says, “and I heard all these shouts coming from the next room. The Blues’ room. My guys were snarling. I was afraid they were going to knock down the door.”
As Bob Plager says, “When Al chased after 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.” The Blues charged out and scored three goals in the third period to beat the Flyers 3–2. Two nights later they defeated the Boston Bruins 5–3, and after that they spoiled Bowman’s return to St. Louis by routing his Montreal Canadiens 7–3.
Ironically, the same Arbour who has coalesced the Blues was a major figure in the rift between Sid the Third and Scotty Bowman last year. Sid wanted Bowman to replace Arbour as the coach of the Blues. Bowman, as general manager, argued that under Arbour the Blues were in second place in the West, right behind Chicago, and had the best record of all the expansion teams. But the Salomons—Sid the Third and his father, Sidney Jr.—wanted a “general” behind the bench, not a “sergeant.” Finally Bowman agreed to coach the team for the last two months of the season with the understanding that Arbour would return as coach for the 1971-72 season.
Right about then Sid the Third demanded a stronger voice in player movements—or else. Bowman, of course, steadfastly refused to relinquish any of the power he had used to make the Blues the best of all the expansion teams, and in the end he, too, was fired. By disposing of Bowman, Sid the Third automatically got the stronger voice he had demanded. He was now the only voice.
Sid Abel was brought in from Detroit as coach, and Lynn Patrick, who had been the Salomons’ No. 1 aide since the start, was named general manager. When the Blues won only three of their first 10 games this season, Sid the Third made Abel the general manager and moved Patrick back upstairs. Bill McCreary then was called in from Denver to coach the team. Despite the changes, the Blues lost four of their next five games. Panic.
“I had to make a trade,” Sid the Third says. “When I act, I act.” Accompanied by his father, Sid the Third flew east to visit New York, Montreal and Boston, in that order. Emile Francis of the Rangers warmly greeted the Salomons. Two seconds later he mentioned the name of Gene Carr, the Blues’ prize young rookie center. Back in St. Louis the Blues’ fans had been told that Carr was going to be the “next Bobby Hull.”
“When Emile offered us three good young players—Jack Egers, Andre Dupont and Mike Murphy—for Carr and two other players who didn’t figure in our plans,” Sid says, “I called St. Louis and polled the staff. The vote was 4 to 1 in favor of the deal.” So Sid the Third shook hands with Francis and flew up to Montreal. Another deal? No. He wanted to apologize to the Canadiens’ general manager, Sammy Pollock, for not discussing Carr with him before making the trade with New York.
While Carr eventually may prove to be the superstar New York has never had, St. Louis certainly has not suffered by the deal. Murphy and Egers are Unger’s wings on the Blues’ No. 1 line, and Dupont, a hitting defenseman, has taken a regular turn and avoided embarrassment.
Salomon’s next trade was another shocker: he sent Jimmy Roberts, the captain of the Blues, back to Montreal for young Right Wing Phil Roberto. “I consider Roberts a close personal friend,” Sid says, “but you can’t permit friendships to interfere with the conduct of your business. We needed a right wing, and we gained nine years. It was the right trade. The vote was 5 to 0.”
All this time only one St. Louis player was excluded from trade discussions—Garry Linger. “I’ve seen so many amazing things happen in my four years in this league that being traded again would not surprise me,” Unger says. “I’m only 24, but I’ve already been traded twice. Look what happened last year when I was with Detroit. Instead of trading the coach, Ned Harkness, they traded the team. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t worry about trades.”
Now that Berenson and Roberts have left St. Louis, Unger obviously is the new favorite of the Blues’ owners. He lives on a 200-acre farm owned by the Salomons. For company he has six cats, a collie, eight puppies and two horses. “The horses are mine,” he says. “One’s a registered paint named Dynamite Will Sonnett, the other’s a registered quarter-horse named Scarlett Downing. She’s expecting in April.”
To the Blues a rather more blessed event would be a 50-goal season from Unger, which is possible. He had only six goals before Murphy and Egers were placed on his wings. In the next 29 games he scored 20. “The big thing, though, is that I hated hockey a year ago and now I love it again,” he says. “Detroit was a drag. Harkness was on me about my hair all the time, and once he even sent me to the barber with a diagram of how he wanted my hair cut. Besides that, I broke three bones in my back before training camp and they bothered me all season. Here in St. Louis I enjoy where I live, and I have a private life—a real private life—off the ice. And nobody’s telling me to think hockey 24 hours a day. Do that and you’ll get punchy.”
Needless to say, when Blues fans kneel beside their beds at night, they pray, “Bless Sid Salomon, but please don’t let him trade Garry Unger or fire Al Arbour. Just this once.”