Whatever the Islanders do for the rest of their existence and wherever they do it, they will carry the spirit of the man who was their heart and soul. Al Arbour's stoic face, with those ever-present eyeglasses, is as much a symbol of the franchise as the logo. And his strong mind is what made the team matter so much.
The Islanders might very well have been whisked away to some bigger market years ago if Arbour had not coached them into the fabric of Long Island. He made them unlikely contenders (1975), legendary champions (1980-83) and unlikely contenders again (1993). As much as anyone, he was responsible for making the Islanders a brand. Thanks largely to him, they earned a huge TV contract, made people want to buy them, made Brooklyn want to welcome them and made Long Islanders so sad about losing them.
Arbour created the Islanders' identity: hard work, no fanfare, immense success. He also embodied it. Long Island was richer because he decided, reluctantly at first, to move here.
He never was a glad-hander or a quipster. He was a good, decent, earnest man who was fabulously good at his job -- perhaps as good as anyone who ever has done it.
Arbour did it little by little, just the way he convinced his Islanders to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series against the Penguins 40 years ago. "One game at a time, one shift at a time," he said then, and again in the next round when his Islanders rallied from a 3-0 deficit to force Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers.
"Other than my dad, he was the most influential person in my life," said Jean Potvin, an Islander when Arbour took over the team in 1973 and a successful businessman who is a vice president of Catholic Charities in Brooklyn.
Potvin once was given a doctor's permission to miss a stretch of practices because of a skin condition exacerbated by perspiring. Potvin gleefully shouted to Arbour from the stands that Ralph Stewart wasn't hustling. When Potvin was healthy, he was "rewarded" with an intense workout that only Arbour could administer. It might have ranked second only to the one the coach inflicted on Jean's brother Denis the day after the latter missed the team bus to Philadelphia.
Denis didn't miss any more buses, and he made it to the Hall of Fame, as did several teammates, including irascible goalie Billy Smith. Disciplinarian though he was, Arbour was flexible enough to let Smith train his own way.
"He treated his players like sons. Sometimes that meant kicking them in the butt, sometimes that meant rubbing their backs," said Pat Calabria, who covered the team's glory years for Newsday and had no problem admitting he cried Friday. He recalled that Arbour treated the media fairly and with dignity while sometimes engaging reporters in "a good, spirited argument."
Pat LaFontaine, a Hall of Famer who broke in as a teenager under Arbour in 1984, remembers being a 6-year-old in St. Louis, attending his first NHL game and being impressed by the bespectacled Blues coach (Arbour's stop before Long Island). "He told me if I ever repeated that story, he'd bench me," LaFontaine said. "He could tap your talent and your character and bring the best out of it. He knew what buttons to press and what buttons to pull and he brought the best out in everybody."
There was the time when Patrick Flatley came directly to the Islanders from the Canadian Olympic team and had a horrible first practice. He made a point of telling Arbour, "I'm usually better than this." To which the coach sternly replied, "You'd better be."
Another time, in a video session, Arbour criticized a player for a tepid poke check. He kept running the tape back and forth, saying, "Who are you supposed to be, Errol Flynn?" His players thought the coach was referring to a defenseman from the 1940s until months later, when one of them saw a movie starring the swashbuckling, sword-fighting Flynn and appreciated the sarcasm.
No hard feelings. Players respected Arbour enough to collect $14,000 a few months ago to buy a 72-inch flat-screen TV and comfortable furniture for his room at a Florida nursing home. Jean Potvin said the donors were from the 1990s Islanders as well as the Cup teams.
The point is, every little thing Arbour did counted for something. The totality of what he did counted a lot. He made the Islanders what they are, and he will be with them wherever they go.