Friday, August 28, 2015

Al Arbour, 1932-2015

Who is the greatest living head coach or manager in New York Tri-State Area sports? If you said Al Arbour, you might well have been right from 1983 until today.

Now, it has to be Joe Torre. He won 4 titles with the Yankees.

Arbour won 4 titles with the Islanders. In a row.


Alger Joseph Arbour was born on November 1, 1932 in Sudbury, Ontario. He played hockey as a defenseman (or "defenceman," as it would be "spelt" in Canada) and starred for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey Association. Named for the British Royal Air Force fighter planes of World War II, they had a working relationship with the NHL team across the river, the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1953-54 season, the Wings called him up, and he played 36 regular-season games and was a member of their Stanley Cup winners.

But the Wings were loaded, particularly with Hall of Fame defensemen Red Kelly (still alive) and Marcel Pronovost (who also died this year, after many years as a Devils scout). Arbour divided the 1954-55 season with the Edmonton Flyers and the Quebec Aces, and was not with the Wings as they successfully defended the Cup.

He was a victim of the fact that the NHL then had just 6 teams, thus 120 jobs, the stingiest of the 4 major North American sports. By the time the NHL expanded in 1967, a lot of guys who should have been playing in the league for years were in their 30s, and, finally getting their chance, it didn't last long.

He spent the 1955-56 season with Edmonton, and was called back up to the Wings, but didn't get into a game. He divided 1956-57 between Edmonton and Detroit, and spent the entire 1957-58 season with them.

But they traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks in what could be called an incestuous deal: The Norris family owned both the Wings and the Hawks' arena, the Chicago Stadium. (Indeed, they sort-of had a hand in half the league, as they also ran the boxing promotion company at that era's edition of Madison Square Garden. They were also a bit mobbed-up.) The Wings and Hawks were kind of like the Yankees and the Kansas City Athletics at this time: If Yankee management had had enough of a player, they sent him to the A's; and if the A's developed a good player, he'd become a Yankee. The difference in hockey was that the Hawks usually didn't have good players in the 1950s, so the shuttle only worked one way, such as when Wings star Ted Lindsay helped found the NHL Players' Association, Wings operating officer (and eventual majority owner) Bruce Norris punished this impudence by sending him to the Hawks.

But this turned out to be foolish, and it not only wrecked the Wings for a few years, it gave the Hawks a chance. Lindsay would be gone by the time the Hawks won the Cup again in 1961, but Arbour would be there, along with Hall-of-Famers Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall. To add insult to injury, it was the Wings that the Hawks beat in the Finals.

Then, in a weird move -- possibly a vindictive one? Were they "getting too big for their britches"? -- Arbour and Hawks Captain Eddie Litzenberger were traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 1961 Cup win. And they helped the Leafs to the 1962 Cup, beating, of course, the Hawks in the Finals!

(Arbour and the man who coached him on the Leafs, George "Punch" Imlach.)

Arbour and Litzenberger are still the last 2 of the 11 players to have won back-to-back Cups with different teams, and Arbour is 1 of 11 players to have won Cup with 3 different teams -- including ex-Devils Claude Lemieux and Joe Nieuwendyk, and old-time Ranger Gord Pettinger.

The Leafs buried Arbour on their Rochester Americans farm team (just across Lake Ontario from Toronto, so close, yet so far away). He only played 10 games with the Leafs the next 2 seasons, and thus was not a member of their 1963 and 1964 Cup winners. (The Amerks did win the Calder Cup with Arbour in 1965 and 1966.) He was stuck at Rochester for the entire 1966-67 season, and again wasn't on the Leafs as they won the Cup.

The Leafs haven't been back to the Finals since, while Arbour would be a part of 8 Cup Finalists from that point onward. Coincidence? "Curse of Al Arbour"? No: The Leafs' inability to win the Cup, or even make the Finals, since the month before the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper is due to intransigent management over nearly half a century, and how Arbour was treated was but a small part of that.

Arbour was 34 years old, and despite winning 3 Stanley Cups and proving his defensive talent, had played a grand total of 395 games over 14 seasons -- an average of 28 a season, and hadn't played in more than 6 in 5 years. Expansion was the answer, and the St. Louis Blues, laden with discarded veterans, not only gave him his chance, but made him their Captain.

(Yes, he wore glasses on the ice. He wasn't the last NHL player to do so, but he was one of the last.)

That move, and the ones to gain veteran players like Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey and Red Berenson, paid off. For the 1st 3 seasons of the expansion era, the NHL put the "Original Six" in the Eastern Division and the "Second Six" in the Western Division. Thus, Chicago and Detroit were in the East, while Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were in the West. This was designed to ensure that an expansion team would reach the Finals every year.

And the Blues won the West in 1968, 1969 and 1970. And got swept by the Montreal Canadiens in 4 straight in '68, got swept by the Habs again in '69, and got swept by the Boston Bruins in '70.

In other words, it didn't work out the way the NHL had hoped. So realignment came in, by geography, and the Blues... haven't been to the Finals since the Beatles broke up, and have still never won a Finals game in 48 years. They've usually been good, but never good enough.

Before the 1970-71 season, head coach Scotty Bowman was lured away by the Canadiens, who must have been impressed despite their sweeps of his team in '68 and '69. Arbour was named interim head coach until Bill McCreary Sr. came in. But the Blues fell victim to the realignment, and McCreary was fired, and Arbour was named player-coach. He retired as a player after the '71 season, and continued to coach the Blues in '72 and '73.


The NHL continued to expand, and in 1972-73, the New York Islanders debuted at the Nassau Coliseum. Like most new teams, their 1st season was dreadful. Original coach Phil Goyette was awful, and replacement Earl Ingarfield was no better. So general manager hired Arbour, who was respected around the league.

After their 1st-ever win against their built-in archrivals, the New York Rangers, future Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park noticed the changes that Torrey and Arbour were making, saying,  "They have a system. They look like a hockey team." (Contrast that with the Devils' 2nd season, in which Wayne Gretzky, harshly but accurately, said they were "putting a Mickey Mouse operation out on the ice.")

Because of his glasses, he was said to resemble actor Gary Burghoff and his M*A*S*H character, Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly, and he seemed very intuitive as a coach, so he was also nicknamed Radar. Today, a Daily News writer remarked that, with his behind-the-times hair and suits, he looked like a character on Mad Men.

In 1975, Arbour got his young Islander team into the Playoffs in their 3rd season, his 2nd. Then they shocked the Rangers, clinching at The Garden. Then they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3 games to none... and won 4 straight to take the series in 7 games, something that had only happened once before in NHL history. (In the 1942 Finals, the Wings won the 1st 3, and the Leafs won the next 4.) Then they almost did it again, falling behind the Cup holders, the Philadelphia Flyers, 3 games to none, and taking it to a Game 7, before the Flyers' experience edge showed.

In 1976 and 1977, the Isles lost to the Montreal Canadiens, who went on to win 4 straight Cups under Bowman. In 1978, the Isles had the best overall record in the NHL -- the President's Trophy wouldn't be first awarded for this until the 1985-86 season -- but got shocked by the Leafs, in a rare moment of glory for them. (They got to the Semifinals before falling to the Canadiens.)

In 1979, the Isles and the Rangers had an epic Semifinal, which the Rangers finally won, before losing to the Canadiens. Isles fans could say the Rangers hadn't won the Cup since 1940 -- or, as they chanted, "Nine-teen-for-ty! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)" But, however long ago, the Rangers had won it. Ranger fans, and fans all over North America, could say that the Islanders couldn't win the big one.

At first, 1979-80 didn't look like it would be the season for them to do it, as the Flyers had a record unbeaten streak of 35 games (26 wins, 9 ties). Clearly, the Isles needed at least one more piece of the puzzle. Torrey found it, getting Butch Goring from the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline in March. With Goring, Billy Smith, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne, John Tonelli and 1980 U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Ken Morrow, they were on their way, closing the regular season by going unbeaten in their last 12 games.

This time, no one could stop the Islanders from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. They were young, but experienced and, especially with the addition of Goring, tough. They faced the Flyers in the Finals, and took a 3-games-to-2 lead, going into Game 6 at the Coliseum. The date was May 24, 1980, now just over 40 years since the Rangers last won the Cup. And the Isles did not want to go into the Spectrum in front of the vicious Philly fans for a Game 7. They didn't have to, as the game went to overtime, and Bobby Nystrom pushed the puck past Pete Peeters. Long Island had a Stanley Cup.

So did the entire New York Tri-State Area. Lots of people who glommed onto the Rangers during their run to the Finals the year before proved to be bandwagon fans, and switched to the Champion Islanders. Led by Torrey in the boardroom, Arbour on the bench, and Captain Potvin on the ice, the Isles won the Cup again in 1981, defeating the Minnesota North Stars in the Finals, and again in 1982, becoming the 1st U.S.-based team ever to win 3 straight Cups. The Nassau Coliseum received the nickname "Fort Neverlose."

It wasn't always easy, and, in particular, a 1982 series saw them pushed to the brink by the Penguins before an overtime goal by Tonelli bailed them out, sending them to a Finals win over the Vancouver Canucks.

They became so popular that the NHL decided that the Tri-State Area could host 3 teams, and approved Dr. John McMullen's purchase of the Colorado Rockies and their move to the Meadowlands to become the New Jersey Devils. It wouldn't have been possible without the success of the Islanders, who made it 4 straight Stanley Cups in 1983, defeating Gretzky's rising Edmonton Oilers in the Finals. Finally, in 1984, the Oilers beat the Isles in the Finals, but not before they'd won 19 consecutive postseason rounds.

By comparison: The record in baseball is 11, set by the 1998-2001 Yankees. In football, 8, set by the 1965-67 Green Bay Packers and tied by the 1988-90 San Francisco 49ers. In basketball, 24, by the 1959-66 Boston Celtics, but the NBA wasn't exactly getting the best possible athletes at the time, and the Celtics found lots of ways to cheat. In contrast, by 1980, the NHL was getting players from Canada, America, Scandinavia, and even the first few defectors from Eastern Europe (mostly Czechoslovakia). There weren't yet any players from the Soviet Union, but it's hard to say that the Islanders weren't facing the best possible competition. (After all, the Isles' Cup win wasn't the biggest American hockey win of 1980.)

And the North American teams that have won 4 titles in a row? Since the founding of the NHL, there's been the 1956-60 Canadiens (5), the 1976-79 Canadiens, and the 1980-83 Islanders. In the NBA, the Celtics won 8 straight 1959-66, but they haven't done it since. Nor the Los Angeles Lakers, nor the Chicago Bulls. The Miami Heat reached 4 straight Finals, but won "only" 2 of them. In baseball, the Yankees won 4, 1936-39; and 5, 1949-53. They came so close in 1998-2001, but fell 1 run short.

There's another way to look at the Islanders' 4 straight Cups: They won as many Cups in those 4 seasons as the Rangers have in their entire 89-year history, and 1 more than the Devils have in their 33 years.

Bill Torrey brought the players together, and Al Arbour led them. They are, arguably, the 2 greatest figures in the history of Tri-State Area hockey.


But nothing lasts forever. They did not reach the Finals in 1985 or 1986, and Arbour moved upstairs into the front office. Terry Simpson was named to replace him, but didn't do well, in spite of the 1987 4-overtime Game 7 "Easter Epic" against the Washington Capitals. The superstars of the Eighties were getting old and injured. He was fired after the 1988 season, in which the Devils made the Playoffs for the 1st time and, in their 1st series, eliminated the Islanders. Amazingly, this remains the only time the Devils and the Islanders have met in the postseason.

Arbour was re-installed, and got the Isles into the Playoffs again in 1990. In 1993, he led the Isles on a magical run to the Eastern Conference Finals -- the last time to date that they've reached the NHL's last 4. Again, as in 1976 and 1977, it was the Canadiens who ended their run and went on to win the Cup. And yet, like the Leafs after 1967, they've never been back. (Again, as with the post-1967 Leafs, it's been shortsighted management that's done it.)

After 1 more Playoff berth in 1994, Arbor retired again, figuring that, at age 61, he'd coached his last game, having won 739 games as Islander coach, with a banner with his name and that number standing in for a "retired number" being raised to the Nassau Coliseum rafters in 1997. The previous year, finally eligible, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

He was done. Or so he thought. On November 3, 2007, Islander coach Ted Nolan officially stepped down, just for 1 night. He'd noticed that Arbour had coached 1,499 regular-season games with the Islanders, and thought it would be nice if he got to 1,500. He cleared it with team management, and invited Arbour to come back for 1 more game. He was 75, and became the oldest man ever to be an NHL head coach. The Isles beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-2. After the game, Arbour's 739 banner was lowered, and a new one raised, with the number 1500.

His 1,500 games and 740 wins with the Islanders, when combined with his Blues tenure, mean he coached 1,607 games in total, winning 782. Both figures are 2nd all-time in the NHL, behind Bowman. Counting the Playoffs, he coached 1,725 games, winning an even 900. (But that milestone wasn't mentioned when he coached his 1,500th Islander game.) He reached the Playoffs 16 times, all but 1 with the Islanders. And, of course, he won 4 Stanley Cups (all in a row) in 5 trips to the Finals (all in a row).

The Hall-of-Famers he coached included Glenn Hall with the Blues; and, with the Islanders, every single one of their players who has yet made it: Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Gillies and Pat LaFontaine.

After the 2007 one-game comeback, Arbour stayed retired. He and his wife Claire had a summer home in their hometown of Sudbury, and a rest-of-the-year house in Longboat Key, Florida, across Tampa Bay from Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Al Arbour died this morning, in hospice care in Sarasota, Florida, where he was being treated for Parkinson's disease and dementia. He was 82 years old.
(One of the last photos, with Islander broadcasters Jiggs McDonald & Ed Westfall.)

If Arbour had never coached the New York Islanders, there might now be a 2nd NHL team in the New York Tri-State Area, along with the Rangers. It might be the Devils. But it almost certainly wouldn't be the Islanders, with whom he built a legacy that people decided was worth saving, and so they never moved to Kansas City, or Las Vegas, or Portland, or anywhere else they'd been rumored to be going.

Instead, the Islanders are moving west on Long Island (on the island itself, if not the cultural "Lawn Giland" that includes only Nassau and Suffolk Counties), to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where they will open their new season on October 9, just 6 weeks from tonight.

No doubt, they will have some type of notation for Arbour on their jerseys, along with a commemoration of their move to a new (if not brand-new) arena. Probably a patch with his initials, AJA, maybe with his signature stitched across them, maybe also with his dates, 1932-2015, or maybe with the number 1500. Or maybe the initials over an image of 4 Stanley Cups.

Without Al Arbour, the New York Islanders would have been a failed experiment, surely moved out of the Tri-State Area at some point in the last 20 years, having never reached the Stanley Cup Finals. With him, they are staying put, as an iconic team of American hockey. Along with Bill Torrey, who is still alive at age 81 and also living in Florida, he is more responsible for that than anyone.

It is odd that Arbour died today, as somebody declared it "National Bow Tie Day." It is Torrey, nor Arbour, who is known for wearing a bowtie, to the extent that it appeared in the place of a number on his banner at the Coliseum, and presumably at the Barclays Center now, along with Arbour's 1500 banner.

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