Al Arbour, the Hall of Fame Islanders coach, who combined old-school discipline with forward-thinking creativity to produce a modern sports dynasty, died Friday morning after a long illness. He was 82.
The Islanders confirmed Arbour's passing in a statement on Friday afternoon.
"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," Islanders president and general manager Garth Snow said. "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."
While his players were in the locker room on May 17, 1983, drinking champagne out of the Stanley Cup for the fourth time, Arbour said in a television interview: "There is no team with greater character, in any sport."
That came, in large part, from the man who was persuaded to take the coaching job in 1973 when general manager Bill Torrey showed him that the North Shore of Long Island was nothing like New York City. At first, Arbour wanted no part of Long Island because he did not think it was a good place to raise a family. By the time he was done, though, Arbour himself had become a part of Long Island, a member of its family. He remains one of its most towering and beloved figures who put it forever on the hockey map with four consecutive Stanley Cups.
The character and the coach leave this legacy: No team in any major sport has won four straight titles since Arbour's Islanders did it. No other NHL team, before or since, has won 19 consecutive playoff series.
"You'll never find a better man, or a better coach, for that matter," said Jiggs McDonald, the longtime Islanders broadcaster and one of Arbour's closest friends in recent years.
Arbour's 740 Islanders wins are the most for any coach with one NHL team. His 782 victories overall are second only to Scotty Bowman, who gave Arbour his coaching start in St. Louis. When the Islanders honored Arbour in 1997 for having been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, emcee Clark Gillies, one of his great players, introduced him this way: "Please welcome the greatest coach in the history of hockey."
Arbour has a special place in the rafters at Nassau Coliseum, where there is a banner marking his 1,500 games, and in the hearts of Long Islanders. He allowed great players to flourish, made other players better than they would have been and added a certain spark to life in general for people in Nassau and Suffolk.
Alger Joseph Arbour was born Nov. 1, 1932 in Sudbury, Ontario, and never played in an indoor rink until he was 15. One summer he worked with his father as an underground smelter in a nickel-mining firm and decided he would rather do something else for a living. So he bounced between the minors and the NHL, playing part-time on back-to-back Cup winners with the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs in 1961 and 1962, then became a regular with the expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967. He played for Bowman and first coached when his boss when on a scouting trip.
Arbour eventually took over and was demanding of his players. Yet he also stood up for them, getting arrested with them during a fracas with fans in Philadelphia.
All of that caught the eye of Torrey, who knew Arbour would be perfect for the new franchise. In Arbour's second season with the team, the third in franchise history, the Islanders became only the second team in NHL history to win a seven-game playoff series after losing the first three games. That win over the Penguins, and a near duplicate in the following series against the champion Flyers, established a tone and identity.
Arbour -- nicknamed "Radar" after the bespectacled M*A*S*H character -- similarly set an immediate, no-nonsense tenor with his players. He held a grueling private two-hour workout for Denis Potvin in 1973, the day after the star rookie missed the team bus to Philadelphia. "He never missed a bus again," Arbour said years later. Potvin joked about the episode during his own Hall of Fame induction speech, having, as Arbour's captain in 1980, been the first Islander to raise the Cup.
As tough as he could be, the coach also was flexible enough to tell rookie Mike Bossy to concentrate on scoring rather than defense. Arbour gave wide berth to temperamental goalie Billy Smith. Those two players made the Hall of Fame, as did Bryan Trottier and Gillies.
Resourcefulness and innovation were as much a part of Arbour's coaching repertoire as his bass voice and sharp temper (he once said his wife Claire "deserves a medal"). In an age before video cassettes and assistant coaches, Arbour asked Claire to tape all of the games on a reel-to-reel machine. With that, he became a video scouting pioneer.
He retired after the 1986 season, then returned for a new generation of Islanders in 1988. His "never give up" credo helped the team to another peak in 1993 as it advanced to the Eastern Conference finals by upsetting the two-time defending champion Penguins, coached by Bowman.
"I'd like to say I taught Al everything he knows, but that isn't so," Bowman said on Nov. 3, 2007, when Ted Nolan stepped down for a night, allowing Arbour to coach one final Islanders game and reach 1,500. Fittingly, the team came back from a deficit to win, 3-2.
Bill Guerin, then the captain, said it was like playing a game for Vince Lombardi. Arbour, by then settled in Florida, was touched, almost beyond words. "It's a great thrill to be back in our hometown," the coach said that night. "Long Island really is our home."