As Al Arbour's life was nearing the end this past year, so was the time left for Nassau Coliseum, the home arena during the most productive years of the former Islanders coach's career.
Arbour's imprint on the lives of his players often seemed rooted in the building itself.
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"When you look at the years we've had as a group at Nassau Coliseum, it was more great times than any of us could imagine," Bryan Trottier, a center on Arbour's teams that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83, recalled Friday after learning of Arbour's death at 82. "And here was one of the great figures to that success. I don't know of anybody who could have done a better job than Al Arbour."
The Coliseum was his canvas. He often would roam the hallways that led to the dressing room, dragging on a cigarette. "He was very repetitive when things were going well," said Clark Gillies, a left wing during the Stanley Cup years. "He would walk up and down the hall, crush his cigarettes in the same spot. There would be trouble if anybody actually tried to clean those cigarettes up."
Arbour would remind players how lucky they were to be in an NHL arena. "He could spin a web," said right wing Bobby Nystrom, also part of the four championship teams. "He could see someone on the side of the road working, digging a ditch, and turned it into a motivational story by saying how lucky we were to be where we are."
The Coliseum used to be the go-to destination of champions, and Arbour expected his players to perform accordingly. "Once you get to the pros, you've already achieved what you set out as a kid to do," Nystrom said. "He basically inspired us to take it further. It's not just about making it, it's about winning, being a champion. He took away egos, deflated them and got them to realize the team was more important than they were."
Former Islanders goalie Glenn "Chico" Resch said Arbour's zest for winning came from his feelings of being an underachiever in his career as a defenseman. He played 14 seasons in the NHL with four teams. "He played like someone who lived on the bubble and always struggled to make the team as a fifth defenseman," Resch said. "It made him see the big picture of not only the hockey team but life."
There was a taskmaster side of Arbour. Resch recalled glancing at a newspaper during a team meeting while Arbour was speaking. "He just said to me, 'Chico, repeat what I just said, would you please?' And of course I couldn't. He said, 'I thought so.' I didn't play that night. He didn't berate me but let me and the team know."
Said Gillies, "He'd have us do two-on-threes for half an hour and we'd say, 'We've done enough.' It was all about getting the players in the best shape for the playoffs."
Former Islanders general manager Bill Torrey said he persuaded Arbour to be his head coach in 1973 after selling him on the team's commitment. They would clash, but Torrey said it always ended "with a handshake and hug."Torrey, now an adviser for the Florida Panthers, had the opportunity to visit Arbour in his later years. He said Arbour was an Islander to the end.
"The last time I saw him, shortly after the draft [in June], I went over to spend a day with him," Torrey said. "Even though I'm currently working for another team, I got an old Islander golf shirt. When he saw the crest on it, he got a big smile on his face and did a thumbs up. It's a day I will hang on to . . . I'm going to miss him but I won't forget him."
Denis Potvin, another key player on the four Stanley Cup-winning teams, said Arbour's legacy will continue through his players. "I was 19 years old," Potvin, now a television analyst for the Panthers, said of his first season. "He coached me for 13 consecutive years. Al Arbour was a man that not only left us feeling like champions but left us with a lot of great memories so we can carry on through life.
"I feel sad at the moment but certainly grateful for the time I had with Al. Five consecutive Finals. [There's] not too many men that could lead a bunch of young people to believe in themselves so much throughout that period."