Al Arbour returned for a one game stint to coach the Islanders against the Penguins last Saturday night and the organization sure put on one hell of show during and after the game.
As a fan of the Islanders since 1976, I well remember Radar and the Cup winning teams he coached. Critics will scoff that he had a ridiculously talented team to work with during his tenure. I won't argue that the players on his teams had talent, to put it mildly (Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Billy Smith and Clark Gillies spring to mind.) But I don't think those same critics give Al enough credit for getting the very best out of those players.
Having talent is one thing...there are plenty of special players, both today and in the history of the sport. These players can dazzle you with their brilliance on a nightly basis, pulling off feats of athleticism that the fan can only dream about. They can impress you with their ability to fight against adversity. They can amaze you with their mental toughness and stamina, staring down pressure filled games without batting an eyelash.
But how many of those hundreds of skilled players in the history of the league have won multiple Stanley Cups with the same teams? How many of them were able to harness their immense gifts to not only provide entertainment, but to fit within a system so that they were part of a bigger picture? I'll tell you who they were...the guys who had great coaches.
Arbour took a team of stars and got them to perform every night as a unit. Egos were checked at the door. Mike Bossy busted his butt as much as Billy Carroll, a fourth line center who barely got any ice time. Bryan Trottier put in as much work as Duane Sutter did. Al Arbour was noted during his playing time as a hard worker who never took a shift off. He passed that same work ethic onto his players.
It has been said about those Cup winning teams from the early 80's that they could beat you in any style you wanted to play them. You want to outmuscle them? Good luck. You're going to confound them with your speed? Nice try. Beat them with a suffocating defense? Go ahead and give it your best shot.
So, how does that happen? How does a team become so proficient in every area of the game that they can adjust to the style of every opponent?
Coaching....which is what Al Arbour did as well as any who have ever submitted a lineup card and stood behind a bench.
The Islanders deserve the league's respect for celebrating this man's unique accomplishments and giving him one final moment in the spotlight. It was a night full of class from top to bottom.
Oh, by the way, the Islanders won the game with a gritty, third period comeback against a very talented Pittsburgh team with a couple of current superstars you may have heard of. They simply outworked the Pens, sacrificing the body and refusing to give in to the ready-made excuse that their star goaltender was knocked out of the game by an accidental high stick.
Sounds like the playing career of a certain coach.