Al ‘Radar’ Arbour passed away Friday at 82, but his impact on the game will live on forever through those he influenced during his days as the New York Islanders’ bench boss. Arbour will be remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time, but, as Stan Fischler writes, he was an even better human being.
My first chat with Al ‘Radar’ Arbour took place in Detroit’s old Leland Hotel in 1961, several hours after the defenseman’s Chicago Black Hawks had defeated the Red Wings for their first Stanley Cup since 1938. Al, myself and Toronto’s Hall of Fame goaltender Turk Broda were the last to occupy what passed for the press room. Al was one of the rare bespectacled players and he was wearing the specs that earned him the name ‘Radar.’
I’d seen Al play plenty before and always was impressed with his steady, savvy performances which — for that time — wasn’t easy since he usually was carried as a spare back liner plugged in for emergencies. At 3 a.m. in the Leland there didn’t seem to be much to talk about anymore but Al — Turk, too — was loquacious and funny. He never seemed to tire of telling hockey stories.
Little did I realize it at the time but those ingredients that blended amiability with perception and a healthy dose of toughness were the very same elements that would characterize Arbour as the greatest coach I ever observed and I started watching hockey at Madison Square Garden in 1939. Sure, Scotty Bowman won more games but being the ultimate in coaching also included a human quality that Al possessed over them all.
“It was Al’s personality that made him so terrific,” Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch once told me, “as much as his brains. Radar had a way with players that made you want to play for him. In a sense, he was like your favorite uncle.” The Maven learned that midway in my professional career that veered from writing to the electronic media.
I started TV broadcasting Islanders games in 1975, the year Arbour steered his club into the playoffs for the first time. From there the Isles ascent was steep but riddled with mis-steps such as the 1978 playoff loss to Toronto and 1979 upset to the Rangers. Through it all Al tasted the sweet uses of adversity and converted them into America’s first dynastic team.
His genius often was revealed; like the time it appeared that the Penguins would pull off a playoff miracle and Al called a timeout to give Bill Smith a rest. That brief respite allowed the Isles to regroup after which his club rebounded, tied the game and won it on John Tonelli’s sudden-death winner that led to yet another championship.
“No coach ever was funnier than Al,” Chico remembered, “nor smarter.” Nor, I might add, more absent-minded. Exhibit A was the episode on a night when his club lost and Radar finished his media scrum. He bolted for his car and drove home only to realize as he reached the driveway that something was missing. His wife. Al had left Claire outside the dressing room and drove all the way back to Nassau Coliseum to retrieve his beloved but very understanding wife.
Another time, heading for a road game, he drove to the airport in Suffolk County and reached for the card that would activate the airport gate. When the card failed to function, Al got out of his auto and lifted the gate himself. Uh-Oh! He forgot to take the vehicle out of gear and it promptly began driving itself through the airport with the coach in hot pursuit. By the time Coach reached his car it had pin balled off a few sitting planes in a scene that even Looney Tunes couldn’t choreograph.
There was nothing absent-minded about Arbour’s original decision to reject GM Bill Torrey’s invitation to coach the Islanders. Never having visited either Nassau or nor Suffolk counties, Al and Claire labored under the misapprehension that the “New York” on the Isles logo was more like Manhattan than Mineola and the Arbours wanted no part of living in the shadow of skyscrapers.
“Before accepting Al’s rejection,” Torrey once told me, “I wanted him to see, first-hand, what the Island was all about and I brought them out and showed them. When he got a good look at the homes, the beaches and the golf courses, among many of Long Island’s assets, he decided to sign with us. They were among the best moves I ever made; first the sightseeing tour; and then getting Al to coach our team.”
As amusing as Mister Coach could be, so was Al was intense and that intensity never was so severely felt than during — and especially after — the four-game 1983 sweep of Edmonton that produced the fourth straight Cup. The rivalry — vs. Gretzky-Messier, Inc. –was so bitter that, in the end, it felt more like a seven-game series than a rout.
A few days later a gala victory party was thrown by owner John Pickett under tents and in a torrential downpour at a posh Long Island country club. It was a a bitter sweet event for two reasons: 1. Al was not there to share in the glorious moment and, 2. He was hospitalized for the nervous tension he suffered having taken his club to an unprecedented triumph.
My other recollection is the manner in which Al’s down-to-earth personality affected his players. And, remember, there was a ton of egos in that Hall of Fame room, running the gamut from Battlin’ Bill Smith to Bob Bourne to Clark Gillies through to the Potvin-Bossy-Trottier core. But the Islanders were a reflection of their coach; never boisterous; never betraying any braggadocio. They won their titles with dignity and graciousness.
“The beauty of Al as coach,” Resch recalled, “was that he was able to tame the egos. He made sure that Potvin played defense first before his natural instinct to score. He turned Bossy into a back checker when no one thought that feat possible. He made every one of his skaters a better player. That’s quite a trick.”
I’ll never forget the 1984 failure of the Drive for Five. The Isles faced elimination in Edmonton and Bob Bourne pleaded with Al to put him back in the lineup despite Bob’s badly damaged knee that had the fleet forward scratched throughout.
Sure, Bourne could have helped but Coach knew that such a move would be career-threatening. Over his player’s plaints, Al did the right thing and vetoed Bob’s wish to lace on the skates.
Kudos for Al could be infinite. Suffice to say that not even the enormously successful Scotty Bowman ever could lay claim to one of — if not the — greatest accomplishment of any NHL coach.
It was Arbour who orchestrated 19 consecutive playoff series victories during the four-Cup-plus run from 1980 through 1984.
No other coach will ever be able to make that statement. Never, ever.
What else is Al’s legacy? For that I turned to one of the most erudite and insightful hockey players I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet — Bobby Holik.
“When I think of Al,” explained Holik, “it’s not just what he did by winning all those Cups, it’s the influence he had on others such as Bossy, Potvin and Trottier, just to name a few.
“Those Hall of Famers learned so much from Arbour and then they passed that knowledge on to others. And the others kept passing it on to the present. Yes, Al is dead, physically, but in the minds of those he influenced, his persona goes on forever!”
Forever, Al Arbour will be remembered by me as supreme mentor, champion and, most of all, a wonderful human being.