To understand the success Al Arbour had as coach of the New York Islanders, all you have to do is go by the numbers.
There were four consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1980s, five consecutive division titles and a record 19 consecutive playoff series wins, not to mention the most games and most wins anyone in hockey history has had behind the bench of one team.
|Ted Nolan came up with the idea to have Al Arbour round his number as coach to 1,500 games. (AP)|
"That first year he came in, we knocked off 100 goals against as a team," said Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin. "We had allowed the most goals ever by a team in its inaugural season, but he had a system and a style of play that made us responsible, and ultimately it was a major reason for all our success."
Of course it took the Islanders a few more years -- along with some great drafts that produced future Hall of Famers Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies -- to round them into the dynasty they became. But according to those who were there, it wouldn't have happened without the right man pulling the strings.
"He took over that team when they were starting out and brought it up to the level of a champion," former Islanders captain and current New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "You can't understate the role he played there."
That's one reason the Islanders have decided to give their former coach a special 75th birthday present this weekend, getting league permission to bring him back behind the bench for one game when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Long Island on Saturday. The idea came from current coach Ted Nolan, who said it always bothered him to walk past an honor roll board in the team's arena and see the number 1,499 next to Arbour's name.
"I'm thinking: 'Wouldn't it be nice to bring him back to coach 1,500?'" Nolan said. "It's a nice round number, and I think it would be a great tribute."
And just one of many that Arbour, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, has received throughout his career.
Hired by the Islanders for the 1972-73 season after a brief stint with the St. Louis Blues, Arbour spent 19 seasons coaching New York except for a brief two-year retirement in the late 1980s. A Clark Kent clone when he was younger, the bespectacled coach was known for being one of the more creative minds behind the bench during his heyday, but not necessarily for being mild mannered.
"He could be very stern and at times, very short tempered because he wanted to get his message across," said Potvin. "But he gained a lot of respect from us because he worked harder than all of us. People forget that in those early days, we didn't have video or assistant coaches."
But Arbour did have a tremendous mix of talent and character, and he was a master at getting the most out of it. Some of his players like Bob Nystrom remember Arbour kicking over garbage cans in the dressing room after wins because the team had allowed too many goals, while Potvin recalls being blasted after getting four points in a 4-1 win because Arbour felt he played poorly in his own end.
In other words he pushed hard, but Arbour could also be a coddler if the situation required it and someone the players knew would always stick up for them.