An Open Letter To Al Arbour

Dear Al Arbour;

By now, most – if not all – of Islanders Country has heard about your state of health.

As a sign of respect from classy and loyal Islanders and hockey fans, many individuals have taken up writing to you, and THW would like to do much of the same for a person that has left an indelible mark on Long Island history.

For any fan of the New York Islanders – older or newer generation – the name Al Arbour is one that everyone will recognize. Playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, and St. Louis Blues during your days as an NHL defenseman, you quickly understood the genetic make-up that a team would need in order to consistently contend for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Being one of a select few players to win consecutive Stanley Cup championships with two different teams, you brought that winning mentality and pedigree to Long Island after coaching the Blues for three seasons – and Islanders fans are surely grateful that fate brought you to the Island instead of anywhere else. While winning the Stanley Cup during your playing and coaching career were undoubtedly memorable milestones, the impact that you had on your players is something that hockey fans of the modern-day aren’t privy to any more.

Hearing and reading what your players said about you puts these facts into perfect perspective, something that Chico Resch marvelously illustrated when he said:

“I think Al was the greatest coach of all time in that he balanced the winning with a personal touch. Nobody did that. Nobody. I think those factors have become more important than ever. When you are dealing with modern-day athletes who are used to not being told no, given a tremendous amount and not being severely disciplined you really have to do it with a personal touch and tact. Al was always the best at that. And he could do it in a way that he never left the person he was doing it with embarrassed. They always say Scotty Bowman and Al were the greatest and I’d pick Al just because of his personal touch.”

Reading such words of praise, one could definitely see the way that your coaching tactics resonated with your players. Unlike the modern-day when athletes are given the world before they have proven themselves in high stakes situations, you made your players work for the right to be on the ice and the right to honor the crest in the middle of their jersey – something that Billy Smith helped put into perspective:

“He knew how to treat people. He didn’t treat everybody the same, he knew everybody had a different personality. Al was good that way. He taught us a system and he didn’t change his system from the beginning year until he retired. […] Whenever we got in trouble or in an overtime game, his favorite statement was ‘I don’t care if the roof falls in, we don’t change our system.”

Instead of catering to players with talent, you made these individuals work until you brought out the best in them, and the Islanders were much better off as a team in the long run as a result. Not only did you instill a winning mentality on Long Island, you were able to get through to your players like no other. Stating these facts might feel as though one is beating a dead horse, but your perception and ability to motivate a wide range of personalities is something that some of the most gifted and intellectual individuals of this world cannot emulate.

Simply put, you were an inspirer and a leader behind the Islanders’ bench, but what probably endeared you to the Isles’ fan-base was the fact that you never acted as though your success made you a “larger than life” figure on Long Island.

As a coach that had attained a massive amount of success molding the Islanders from a young expansion team into a Stanley Cup champion, natives of Long Island certainly understood what you meant to countless households in Nassau and Suffolk County. For an area that did not have a professional sports franchise until the Islanders moved into the Nassau Coliseum, you gave Long Islanders a reason to frequent a place that many would probably not have considered – from first glance – the home of a dynasty NHL franchise.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I never truly understood what the New York Islanders meant to Long Island until I moved out to Suffolk County and had a chance to share stories and memories with Islanders fans of all ages. In particular, the stories that were told – from the older generation of fans – about the Isles’ exploits during the late-70s and throughout the 80s never failed to mention that an integral figure behind New York’s bench served as the adhesive to bonding together one of the last dynasty teams that hockey fans have seen play in the NHL.

Not only were you a force to be reckoned with as the head coach of the Islanders, you were – and still are – an individual that is rightfully revered throughout Nassau and Suffolk County. Tales of the Islanders’ success during the late twentieth century have been told – and will continue to be told – without a set narrative in mind. Of course, stories of the Isles’ success might tend to center around the dynasty years when they are recounted, but those bits of oral history will almost always lead back to the man who stood behind the bench and diligently forged a winner that would never give up or take their stardom or talent for granted.

Long Islanders won’t soon forget what you did for this franchise and for the suburban neighborhoods of Long Island. Transforming an expansion team into a consistent competitor, you shaped the landscape of the New York sports scene during the late twentieth century, but more importantly, you gave Long Islanders a reason to be proud of their hockey team and created an identity and attitude that few – if any – have been able to replicate.

Words can’t summarize or do justice to what you have meant to the Islanders and Long Island, and for a man that gave it his all to a developing franchise and fan-base a simple “Thank You!” just does not suffice. It certainly would have been nice to see you frequent the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum one last time before the Islanders’ inevitable move to the Barclays Center, but one’s health is always paramount to what a fan-base might want to see or experience. For the time being, the endless memories and stories that you have created for a franchise that is not even half a decade old will live on.

A mentor and motivator such as yourself doesn’t come along every so often, and Islanders Country will certainly cherish everything that you have done for their beloved franchise and Long Island. To an individual that united a hockey team and countless suburban communities under one banner, it’s hard to imagine anyone else accomplishing what you did during your tenure with the New York Islanders. On behalf of The Hockey Writers, we hope that you continue to be in good spirits while reading these letters and wish you and your family nothing but the best going forward.

Here’s to you, Mr. Arbour!