It was the man’s understated style, his humble strength.
In a profession often dominated by flamboyant showmen, Al Arbour preferred the role of teacher and mentor, leaving the flash to others.
The black, horn-rimmed glasses were a distinctive trademark when he played, and in some ways, spectacles were part of his coaching demeanour, a statement that winning and winning the right way was far more important than making the world stand up and notice what a brilliant coach he was. With Arbour, it was always substance over style, and he was never the coach who instilled fear in his players to get them to perform.
“He was firm but fair. It was the way he played, and the way he coached,” said Scotty Bowman, the only man to win more NHL games and coach more NHL games than Arbour. “He was a wonderful man. I can’t say enough about him.”
Arbour, who died Friday at age 82, was one of the very best coaches in NHL history, but only won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year once. That suggests people just expected his teams to win and therefore never rewarded him with a prize often reserved for coaches who turn losers into unexpected contenders.
“When I first played for him I thought he’d be really old school,” said Hockey Night in Canada’s Kelly Hrudey, who played goal for Arbour’s New York Islanders. “But I couldn’t have been more wrong. More than anyone, he understood the psychology of a person and a player.”
There was a basic dignity about Arbour, something connected to being born in Sudbury, Ont., as North America lurched through the Great Depression. He was a stay-at-home defenceman, always, who broke in with the Red Wings in 1953 and was still playing in the 1969-70 season when St. Louis asked him to take over as coach.
That didn’t work, but when the New York Islanders won only 12 games in their inaugural season, GM Bill Torrey fingered Arbour as the perfect candidate to lead his team forward.
Within a decade, the Islanders were a dynasty. They won 19 consecutive playoff series at one point and four straight Stanley Cups, only knocked off their pedestal in the end by the young, brash Edmonton Oilers, who promptly established their own dynasty.
So many times members of those Oilers teams have testified that they learned the sacrifices necessary for winning championships through witnessing what Arbour’s Islanders were willing to do. In part, of course, they were doing it for him. Or because of him.
After that brief stint with the Blues, he only coached the Islanders and no other teams, stopping in 1986, then taking over again early in 1988-89 for a second run. He was the Islanders, a constant and noticeable fixture for more than two decades, so synonymous with the brand that few remember Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield coached the Islanders in their first NHL season, not Arbour.
Those who have watched the sad decline of that franchise in more recent times, and seen the team decide to abandon Uniondale and head to Brooklyn to put down new roots, should understand that the days under Arbour in Nassau County were great ones. They were times when the Islanders were one of the NHL’s leading franchises – and owners of an outsized television contract – not because they were able to eclipse the nearby Rangers, but because they were just so damn good, year after year.
That had an awful lot to do with Arbour. The franchise is more than four decades old and has never won had any real success without him behind the bench. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Bowman was shocked to learn of Arbour’s passing Friday afternoon despite his poor health in recent months, and talked about how Arbour, as captain of the expansion Blues almost a half-century ago, was as a mentor for players like Barclay Plager.
“I remember we were on trip and acquired a veteran player and Al saw him telling a younger player not to pay his incidentals at a hotel because they might forget and not bill him,” Bowman recalled. “Well, Al stepped right up and said, ‘Our team is not run like this.’ He was that kind of guy.”
Bowman talked about Arbour’s determination in etching out a playing career when he was often a spare part on good teams. During the 1960s while with Toronto, Punch Imlach would let him languish in the minors all season, then recall him as late season insurance. Finally, frustrated because his children were in school in Rochester, Arbour insisted in his contract that he had to give permission to be recalled to the Leafs.
“He gave permission, of course,” Bowman chuckled.
Arbour had a profound impact on many of his players, like Jean Potvin, who played under Arbour with the Isles along with his more accomplished brother, Denis.
“Other than my dad, he was the most influential person in my life,” Jean Potvin said in an interview with Newsday.
That sentiment was echoed by Hrudey, who called Arbour “like a second father.”
“I thought what he was trying to groom us for was just life,” Hrudey said. “For instance, I remember he talked to me about double standards, and how people have them.
“He would make us understand how lucky we were. I remember after one game at Madison Square Garden, he didn’t like our work ethic, and when we got off the bus at Nassau Coliseum that night he told us the next day we were going to have a good, long hard work day, just like our parents had. We were going to get to work at 7 a.m. and stay until dinner. That had a great impact.”