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Al Arbour to return to Islanders to coach 1,500th game with team

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Al Arbour traded in his whistle for a sweater and a brown leather jacket.

Too many years have passed for him to lead his team on the ice for practice, but not so many that he can't spend one more night behind the bench for the New York Islanders

Arbour, the Hall of Fame coach who guided the Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier-led Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83, has been given a gift by the team 13 years after he said goodbye for the second time.

On Saturday night he will step back into his familiar role as coach for one more game - No. 1,500 with the franchise that he helped make famous.

Current Islanders coach Ted Nolan will move over into an assistant's role against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to allow Arbour to hit one more milestone two days after turning 75.

"I used to take pride in going behind the bench," Arbour said after watching practice Friday. "I was very calm and collected in those games. I'm sure tomorrow I'll be a nervous wreck. I know Ted better do a good job or I'll be on his back."

That was one of several funny and touching moments Friday as Arbour reflected on his days with the Islanders. He recalled the glory years that featured five Hall of Famers, but said they couldn't have won without secondary players such as Bob Nystrom, who helped welcome him back.

Arbour joined the club in 1973 and left in 1986, only to return three seasons later for another six-season stint. He replaced Terry Simpson, the only other coach in Islanders history to win a playoff series.

"When this team won, the Broad Street Bullies were in their prime and Edmonton was coming," Nolan said. "They had to go through some battles and wars."

The highlight of Arbour's return was the Islanders' stunning upset of the two-time defending champion Penguins in the 1993 Patrick Division finals. New York trailed the series 3-2 before coming back and winning Game 7 on David Volek's overtime goal.

"It brings back a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories, but they're still memories," Arbour said. "Once in a while you really think about it, and I've really thought about it a lot since I've been here.

"All those things are going to come back."

For a quick reminder he can just look up to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum rafters where banners hang commemorating his 739 wins with the Islanders, longtime general manager Bill Torrey's bow tie, the retired numbers of his former players, and of course, the four Cup championships.

"It's an honour," forward Ruslan Fedotenko said. "We're trying to just show up and really play well to win the game for him. It's special for everybody."

A new banner will rise after Saturday's game that will pay tribute to No. 1,500. The Islanders would be glad to update the win total to 740.

"Our main focus is on Pittsburgh," said goalie Rick DiPietro, whose contract is 14 years, 364 days longer than the one-day deal Arbour inked. "It's a tough challenge, so we'll go about our business preparing as if it was any other game.

"Obviously there's going to be a little bit of added pressure because we've got Al Arbour behind the bench."

This one-night extravaganza is the brainchild of Nolan, who grew tired of walking the hallway outside the Islanders' dressing room past a wall that honours team awards and achievements. The 1,499 games coached kept jumping out at Nolan, who has 92 with New York under his belt.

"I don't think I'll ever come close to that number," Nolan said.

Although Arbour is coming back for a single night, the meaning runs much deeper for Nolan.

"It's way more than just ceremony," Nolan said. "You're trying to re-establish your connection with the people here and trying to get the organization where it once was and where it should be, I am a strong believer that you learn from your elders. They're so wise and they have so much experience.

"You never forget where you came from, so by bringing back Al for this one night, it's not just a one-night hurrah. It's a great tribute to Al, but also it's a bigger tribute to this organization."

Arbour spent parts of three seasons coaching the St. Louis Blues before joining the Islanders. He ranks first in games coached with one team and second overall in NHL history to Scotty Bowman. Arbour is second in wins, second in playoff games coached, and second to post-season victories - again only to Bowman.

Arbour doesn't watch as much hockey at home in Florida as he used to, and doesn't frequent Tampa Bay Lightning games anymore. Illness has slowed him the past few years, but his smile and bright-eyed look Friday revealed the passion that clearly never went away.

"My wife watches the games more now. I fall asleep at 9:30," Arbour said. "I'm liable to fall asleep on the bench."

Mike Sillinger and the rest of the Islanders, who Arbour said "have a lot of character and they come to play the game" will make sure he stays awake to enjoy the entire experience.

Sillinger played in his 1,000th NHL game Thursday, but needed 12 teams to get there.

"You look at what I just accomplished ... and that's 1,500 games. That's something special," he said. "If I get to 1,500, it will be in a beer league."

A win on Saturday will move the Islanders one-point ahead of the Penguins into second place in the Atlantic Division. That will be good, but far from a championship they hope to bring back to Long Island.

Arbour doesn't wear the rings much anymore, but did flash one Friday.

"I'm wearing the third one," he said. "It fits well, so that's why I wear it."


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