Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - One on One with Al Arbour
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One on One with Al Arbour

1 FEBRUARY 2008
After distinguishing himself as an amateur hockey star, Arbour was signed by the Detroit Red Wings and played his first professional game in the NHL in 1953. (Turofsky/HHOF)
Even as a player, Al Arbour distinguished himself from the rest of the National Hockey League. A defensive defenceman par excellence, the Sudbury, Ontario-born Arbour was at his best protecting his netminder by blocking shots, in spite of the fact he wore glasses while playing.

Signed by the Detroit Red Wings, Al joined the junior Windsor Spitfires just shy of his seventeenth birthday. The goaltender he protected there was Glenn Hall, while teammates included other future Red Wings Earl Reibel, Glen Skov and Eddie Stankiewicz. During his four seasons in Windsor, Al would also play with Cummy Burton, Don Cherry, Larry Hillman, John Muckler and Dennis Riggin.

After winning a WHL championship with the Edmonton Flyers in 1952-53, Arbour saw his first NHL action the next season, playing 36 games with the Red Wings in 1953-54. Although he saw no action during the playoffs that spring, Al got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup for the first time following the Wings' seven-game series with the Montreal Canadiens in the final.

During that dynastic era for Detroit, the Red Wings had a surplus of fine defenceman, with Warren Godfrey, Bob Goldham, Larry Hillman, Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost all earning time on the blueline, and Arbour anxiously waited for his chance, biding his time predominantly with the Edmonton Flyers. In 1954-55, he was named to the WHL's Second All-Star Team, but it wasn't until the playoffs of 1955-56 that Al saw NHL action again.

Al Arbour was claimed by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1958. Here, Arbour shakes hands with Toronto Maple Leaf coach Punch Imlach. (Turofsky/HHOF)
By 1957-58, Arbour had finally cracked the Red Wings line-up full-time. But in June 1958, he was plucked from Detroit's line-up by Chicago in the Intra-League Draft. Shoring up the Black Hawks blueline, Al spent three seasons in Chicago, including a second Stanley Cup championship in 1961.

After winning the Cup with Chicago, Al may have been disappointed to be selected from the Hawks by Toronto in the June 1961 Intra-League Draft, but it was fortuitous timing for the bespectacled defenceman, as he was part of the Toronto dynasty that won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and 1964 (he missed Toronto's 1963 Stanley Cup championship as he spent most of that season with the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, where he was named to the league's First All-Star Team. He made the All-Star squad again in 1964 and 1966, and was named the AHL's best defenceman in 1965). Championships became de rigueur to Arbour, who assisted Rochester to Calder Cup championships in 1965 and 1966.

With the NHL's expansion to twelve teams in time for the 1967-68 season, Al was left unprotected by Toronto and was grabbed by the St. Louis Blues. The veteran defenceman added much to the expansion franchise. The Blues secured a number of stars in the twilights of their careers that helped make St. Louis a formidable opponent to challenging teams. Besides Arbour, St. Louis boasted an inaugural season defence that included Doug Harvey, Noel Picard, Bob and Barclay Plager and Jean-Guy Talbot. Old pal Glenn Hall was in goal, while Red Berenson, Don McKenny, Gerry Melnyk, Dickie Moore and Ron Stewart added veteran presence to the offense. In four seasons with the Blues, Arbour played in the Stanley Cup Final three times.

Arbour played five seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and earned his second Stanley Cup ring in 1962. He was also one of the few players in league history to wear glasses while playing. (HHOF Images)
"I enjoyed the fun of it (playing); the feeling that you had after you won a hockey game," stated Arbour in Dick Irvin's book, 'Behind the Bench'. "There's no greater feeling than the one you get when you're a player and you go out and win a real tough game. I've had great feelings coaching and winning the Stanley Cup, but it never seemed to be the same feeling I got when I was a player."

In 1970, with the end of his playing career imminent, the thirty-eight-year-old Arbour was introduced to the idea of coaching. "Scotty Bowman was the one who got me interested in coaching," explained Al. "I was playing for him in St. Louis at the end of my career. He wanted to step aside and become the general manager and he wanted me to take over."

Arbour coached until February 1971, but returned to playing when Bowman returned behind the bench. Bowman was fired at the end of that season. "There was controversy all the time," admitted Arbour.

Al, who was under contract to the Blues, assumed the position of assistant general manager with St. Louis beginning with the 1971-72 season. At Christmas, with the team struggling, the coach, Bill McCreary, was fired and Al was asked to coach once again, and helped guide the Blues into the playoffs. By the following season, the situation changed once again. "I got into a conflict with Sid (Solomon III, the Blues' owner). We weren't hitting it off very well. I knew I was a marked man. I coached thirteen games and I was gone."

After retiring as a player and coaching two years in St. Louis, Arbour went behind the New York Islander bench in 1973. (Graphic Artists/HHOF)
After scouting briefly for the Atlanta Flames, Arbour was approached with another offer to coach. "Bill Torrey asked me if I would be interested in coaching the (New York) Islanders. I told him no. I said I had four kids and wouldn't want to move them to New York." But after visiting Long Island for the first time, Al acquiesced and accepted the position. "You could see a good team in the making," said Arbour. "We got Denis Potvin for the defence, Trots (Bryan Trottier) at centre and other young bucks like Clark Gillies, Bob Bourne and John Tonelli. Then came the arrival of Mike Bossy."

The Islanders finished first overall in 1978-79, but were eliminated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs. "We changed our format around a bit during that regular season," explained Arbour. "Everyone said to forget about the playoff losses to the Maple Leafs in 1978 and the Rangers in 1979. But I said, 'No, I don't want them to forget about it. Just remember that so it will never happen again.' We carried those losses into the season a little longer than I thought it would be and I couldn't really get them going." Nevertheless, Al was chosen as coach of the year, winning the Jack Adams Trophy.

With Al Arbour coaching in New York, the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983 and became only the second NHL club to win four straight titles. (Paul Bereswill/HHOF)
The next season, the Islanders added a significant piece to the puzzle. "At the trading deadline, we got Butch Goring from L.A. We had a very young team and he was the guy we needed with just the right kind of experience. We needed somebody that was going to have that calming influence. He had that affect on the team immediately and we were on our way from there forward," nodded Arbour.

Arbour was correct. The New York Islanders won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1980, then proceeded on an extraordinary streak that saw the franchise win the championship four seasons in a row. In 1980, the Islanders defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games to win the Stanley Cup. The next spring, the victim was the Minnesota North Stars, whom the Islanders took in five games. It was a four-game sweep of the Vancouver Canucks in 1982 and in 1983, another four-game sweep, this time over the Edmonton Oilers.

At the conclusion of the 1985-86 season, Al retired as coach of the Islanders. But two and a half years later, after holding a management position with the team, Arbour was coaxed to return behind the bench. "I had never given any thought to coaching again," said Arbour. Replacing Terry Simpson, he took over a team depleted of much of the talent he had enjoyed in the early-1980's. "When you're not accustomed to losing, it certainly does a job on you. It eats you up." In his second tenure coaching the Islanders, Al was behind the bench from 1988-89 to 1993-94. The zenith of his second installment coaching the Long Island squad took place when the Islanders reached the semi-finals by upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins, defending Stanley Cup champions. Following the 1993-94 season, Al Arbour retired.

Arbour retired having coached 1,499 games for the Islanders, more by 487 than any coach had been behind the bench with one franchise. Current coach Ted Nolan had an idea that Arbour should coach one more Islanders' contest to make the total a nice round figure. With the permission of general manager Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang, Arbour was approached about coaching again, just one more game, to bring his total with the Islanders to 1,500. "I haven't coached a game in 15 years," said an astounded Arbour. "I haven't seen a game in person in three years."


Arbour retired in 1994 as the second-winningest coach of all time, with 781 regular-season victories and 123 post-season triumphs to his credit.
(HHOF Images)
Or so he thought. On November 1, 2007, Al celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. The next day, he signed a one-day contract to coach the Islanders and on Saturday, November 3, Arbour was behind the bench as his beloved Islanders were challenged by the Pittsburgh Penguins. "This is an incredible gesture by Ted and the Islanders," said Arbour at the time. "I am flattered that Ted thought of me and I wouldn't miss this night for the world. I told the team that I do not want any pre-game fanfare. I'm there to coach the game and help Ted and my Islanders try to earn two points against a very tough team."

Commenting on the way the game had evolved, Al stated, "It's a totally different game now, a European game with skating and winding up and moving the puck. I really like the way they opened the game up."

Arbour and the Islanders defeated Pittsburgh 3-2, with Miroslav Satan scoring the game-winner. The victory gave Al a lifetime record of 782 career regular seasons win, 577 losses and 248 points in 1,607 regular season games, making him the second-winningest NHL coach of all time. With the Islanders alone, Arbour coached 1,500 regular season games, with 740 wins, 537 losses and 223 ties. In playoff action, Arbour's career record is 118 wins and 83 losses in 201 games.

As a coach, Al led his teams to four Stanley Cup championships, was named coach of the year in 1979 and was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for contributions to American hockey in 1992. On January 25, 1997, Al was honoured by the New York Islanders with a special night. For his incomparable dedication to the sport, Al Arbour was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder Category in 1996.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features at the Hockey Hall of Fame.