When I heard the news that legendary former NY Islanders head coach Al Arbour had passed away, yet another one of the memorable pages of my life had to be turned. Arbour may not have had the all the attention of New York media the way Joe Torre did when he managed the New York Yankees to four straight championships, but the NY Islanders won four Stanley Cups in a row (1980-1983) under his lead, and the team was more about Long Island than New York City anyway.
Growing up in Queens put me geographically in a predicament – while I lived in New York City, I was closer to Long Island. Living in this sports crossroads early in my lifetime shaped my allegiance to specific teams. Having a family that had been Brooklyn Dodgers fans, I automatically had to root for the Mets. Along with that was the package deal of the football Jets. When it came to basketball, I liked the Knicks but the ABA Nets got Julius Erving and I quickly became a fan.
The Nets used to play in the Island Garden, and going to games in that small space was exciting and intimate. To go to the bathroom, you had to pass the court, and one time my father laughed when he saw me standing next to Rick Barry who towered over me, but that was how close the fans were to the players there.
When the Nets moved into Nassau Coliseum, I became exposed to the NY Islanders and quickly became a fan. This proved fortuitous because the Nets would soon leave the coliseum for New Jersey (thus losing me as a fan), but I couldn’t have timed it better because the ascendency of the Islanders had begun.
Al Arbour became head coach of the Islanders in 1973, and going to home games was exciting in this brand new arena. Remembering the old Island Garden, Nassau Coliseum seemed a true major sports venue. Having gone back to being a Knicks fan, I much preferred it to Madison Square Garden on many levels, especially the simple and quick trip to get there.
Arbour’s coaching ability seemed transparent. While players like Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, or Bryan Trottier may have joked about him being a tough coach, there also seemed to be genuine camaraderie and affection between Arbour and his team. From the stands or on the TV screen, Arbour came off as quietly effective, and his amazing record as both a player and coach qualified him for election to the Hall of Fame in 1996. Ask any of the players who were lucky enough to call Arbour “coach,” and all will say similar glowing things about his leadership that took their team to four consecutive championships.
Of course, being that this team played on Long Island and not in New York City, we fans always would get into it with NY Rangers fans who thought they had the best team. Since the Islanders were not a city team, the Ranger fans had every right to claim NYC as their turf, but whenever the Rangers would come to the coliseum, the fans would let them have it with chants of “1940!” (the last time the Rangers had won a championship).
Under Al Arbour the Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups, and that is a monumental accomplishment – as is four straight championships in any sport. Arbour never was a rock star, with his eyeglasses and quiet demeanor making him seem more like a professor than a hockey coach, but his tactics learned as a defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Toronto Maple Leafs proved invaluable for his team as it skated its way to those four unforgettable championships.
The 82-year-old Arbour had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and living in Florida. His passing is a sad moment for Islanders (and all hockey) fans, and sadly at a time that his old team moves into Barclays Center in Brooklyn to rejoin the New York Nets in the same building.
How apropos that the place that was once so identified with Arbour and his team – Nassau Coliseum – is now like a ghost town, destined to someday soon be demolished. It truly does feel like an end of an era now and, while this old Queens boy at heart may be able to easily hop on the subway and go to games, it won’t be the same ever again.
The Islanders now not only share a building with the Nets but a city with the NY Rangers, just as the Nets do with my Knicks. We can all dream that a new arena will be built where Nassau Coliseum now stands on the land that once was Mitchell Field, but that probably will never be, just as it seems that there will never be another guy like Al Arbour, who guided his team to win four Stanley Cups in a row.
Al and the coliseum are inextricably linked – and now both will be gone. We can salute him for those great seasons, and we can fondly think of the place his team used to call home. Indeed, another page has been sadly turned, and despite the tears there are also the great memories of that unmistakable sound of a Nassau Coliseum crowd cheering on the home team. That is forever for all of us who ever had the privilege to be there.
Rest in peace, Al Arbour.
Photo credits: nhl.com, Islandersnhl.com, Wikipedia, NY Daily News
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