Ill ex-coach Al Arbour remains Islanders’ franchise pillar
File photo of Islanders great Al Arbour at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. (Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)
Almost 2,000 kilometres from where his honourary banner dangles majestically from the Nassau Coliseum rafters, Al Arbour is a prisoner in his own body at a hospice in Sarasota, Fla., a victim of the dastardly duo of Parkinson’s and dementia.
Wheelchair bound and barely able to speak, if at all, the ailing Arbour, according to those who know him, needs any ray of hope, any nugget of optimism to add some light in what can otherwise be some very dark days thanks to the heinous diseases the legendary coach is battling.
And maybe, just maybe, the 2015 New York Islanders are helping to that end, even if just for a fleeting moment.
“If this brings a smile to his face, then it’s well worth it,” Islanders Hall of Famer Mike Bossy told the Sun Wednesday.
If the Islanders do not win two of their next three contests against the Washington Capitals in their first round playoff series, which currently is knotted at 2-2 entering Game 5 in Washington Thursday, then Saturday’s Game 6 will be the final contest played at the Coliseum. The Islanders move into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center next fall.
Indeed, if this antiquated rink was The House That Bill Torrey built in reference to the former Isles GM, then it certainly was The Barn That Arbour Owned.
Second to only Scotty Bowman on the all-time coaching list for career wins (782) and games coached (1,607), Arbour was behind the Isles bench for an amazing 1,500 games, accruing a record of 740-537-223.
In the process, his fingerprints still resonate all over the franchise to this day, an influence captain John Tavares is well aware of. “He really is the ultimate Islander,” he said Wednesday.
Keep this in mind: This is the same John Tavares who admits to having never spoken a word to Al Arbour.
And yet, he knows the impact Arbour still has on this franchise.
Just like Arbour seems to know that these Islanders, led by Tavares, are not the laughing stocks of the league any more.
“Claire Arbour, Al’s wife, was here last week and she said he gets the sense that the team had a resurgence and that things are doing well,” Bossy said. “I think he does understand what is going on.”
A member of the Isles four Cup-winning teams of the 1980s, Bossy still has a special place in Arbour’s life. Indeed, on the wall of his hospice room, Arbour has a photo of Bossy signed by his former sniper that reads: “Keep your head up. Good luck.”
Back in March, former Islanders Glenn Healy, Pat Flatley and Ray Ferraro made the trek down to Florida to visit the ailing Arbour.
With the iconic bench boss having played such a strong role in their lives, they didn’t want to take the chance, didn’t want to never see him again -- a sobering possibility that struck home after the death of the great Jean Beliveau in December.
Said Healy: “Right after the Beliveau situation, Pat and I decided ‘Why wait?’ We thought about how much this man had meant to us as a coach, a person, a mentor. So Pat, Ray Ferraro, myself, one of the trainers, one of the physio guys, we said ‘Let’s do it.’
“We were telling stories, having a good time. It was just like we were back in the dressing room. That’s the one thing about Al. He was an engaging, awesome person. The stories were just fantastic.”
The visitors, of course, did most -- if not all -- of the talking.
“Communication is an issue for him,” Healy said. “And that’s tough. One of the greatest communicators of all time as a coach isn’t able to communicate. It’s frustrating for him, I’m sure. But it was really worthwhile to see him. We kind of rehashed how he had brought all these guys in as kids and developed them, not just as good hockey players -- of course he did that -- but as men and as ambassadors to the game.
“I think that’s his legacy.”
One that Islanders coach Jack Capuano tries to learn from each and every day, thanks to a conversation he had with Arbour back in 2005.
“The one thing he said to me was that he probably wouldn’t have coached those teams as long as he did if he didn’t adapt every year,” Capuano said.
“Al didn’t just try to make them better players. He tried to make them better people. And that’s what I try to do too -- communicate with my guys, ask about their families. It’s about caring about your players. That’s what Al did.”
If this Capuano-coached, Tavares-captained team can somehow eliminate the Caps, it will be the first playoffs series won by the Islanders franchise since the 1993 squad of Arbour, Healy, Ferraro and Flatley.
That’s a 22-year dry spell.
Meanwhile, almost a world away, Arbour continues to fight a battle he’ll never win.
“It’s never any fun to see anyone go through any suffering as I’m sure Al is,” Bossy said. “I think Al, as Claire told me, is clearly frustrated at what he’s going through. Because obviously people in his situation, they have good moments and bad moments.”
One suspects being told the 2015 Islanders are continuing to be successful would give Al Arbour one of those rare “good moments.”
And, given his condition, Al Arbour deserves every remaining precious reason to smile that he can get.