There was nothing flashy about Al Arbour.
When hockey fans run down the list of the best coaches of all-time or the most memorable men to walk up and down an NHL bench, the former defenseman and long-time coach of the New York Islanders probably doesn’t get mentioned, but he should.
Arbour, who passed away Friday at age 82, sits second behind Scotty Bowman in both games and wins as a coach, though Chicago bench boss Joel Quenneville will pass him in the win column once the Blackhawks win their 29th game of the season. He has four Stanley Cup rings as a coach (plus two more as a player) and a career playoff winning percentage of .589. In 19 seasons at the helm of the Islanders, Arbour missed the playoffs only four times, including his first year on the job, which was the team’s second year in the NHL.
Arbour was the coach of the last true dynasty in the National Hockey League, the Islanders teams that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-80 through 1982-83 and five straight Finals appearances. Free agency and expansion have changed the way we define dynasties these days in professional sports, but there was no question the Islanders teams of that era fit the description, with the same collection of players – Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Bob Nystrom, Clark Gilles - making up the nucleus of those squads.
Another key member of those championship teams was goaltender Billy Smith, who also doubles as my godfather. I was fortunate to get to visit those clubs in various dressing rooms during my much younger days and celebrate at least one of those Stanley Cup wins in person, though my memories are relegated to a couple pictures with Lord Stanley’s mug and the Conn Smythe Trophy the year “Uncle Bill” earned the award.
I was lucky to meet Mr. Arbour on several occasions, including a few times after the Stanley Cup days when I was old enough to remember those encounters. He was always generous with his time and told my brother – then a standout pee-wee goalie – that “Smitty” was always talking him up and that the club would keep an eye out for him in the future.
Unfortunately, my brother never made it to the big leagues, meaning I never got to ride on his coattails, Charlie Murphy style, but we did get to peak behind the curtain of a big league club a few times and Mr. Arbour was always there with a smile and a pat on the back when we did.
We talk a lot these days about great coaches and the influence they have on their respective franchises – Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick with the Packers and Patriots respectively, Joe Torre’s New York Yankeees. Arbour had that kind of impact on the Islanders, working in tandem with general manager Bill Torrey to shape the roster and getting a collection of future Hall of Famers (and several other standouts that could have shone even brighter elsewhere) to play come together when it counted most.
Al Arbour was one of the best coaches in history of North American team sports and he will be missed.