Al Arbour became a trending topic Friday on Twitter, a universe that was unimaginable in his days as a helmetless, glasses-wearing defenseman or an assistant-less young coach. The juxtaposition seemed odd on one level, but it really was the perfect tribute to a man who was ahead of his time.
It would be technically correct to call Arbour "Old School," and also misleading. The phrase these days has a vaguely negative connotation, sort of like "out of touch."
Truth is, Arbour's strength was that he was profoundly in touch, with his players, his sport, his world. If he were in his prime today, he would have come up with a way to thrive.
"He was a sports psychologist before the term was even invented," Jiggs McDonald, the Islanders' play-by-play man during most of their Stanley Cup run, said soon after his close friend died in Florida on Friday.
Arbour also was someone who, despite being known for defense, coached an offensive juggernaut and a prolific power play. He was a pioneer at studying video in the days before there were video coordinators (he had his wife, Claire, tape the games). Having grown up in the six-team NHL, composed overwhelmingly of Canadian players, he succeeded during expansion with a roster dotted with Americans and Europeans.
The league put in a rule to answer his creativity -- no more in-game warmups for replacement goalies after the powers-that-be realized that Arbour was changing goalies to give his team a rest. The NHL now has officially sanctioned timeouts.
Who knows what he would do if he were coaching now? But it's a good bet that people would be praising it in 140 characters.
It was appropriate, not an anachronism, that he drew this kind of tweet Friday from Ray Ferraro, who became an All-Star on Arbour's Islanders: "So sad, he impacted my career, life deeply. Rest peacefully, Al, prayers to Claire and family."
There was this tweet from the Nashville Predators' Eric Nystrom, whose father scored the biggest goal in Islanders history: "RIP Al Arbour. You changed my dad's life and my family lived blessed b/c of that. Heroes are remembered, but LEGENDS never die!"
Highly successful people get where they are by constantly figuring it all out, in the manner of Bill Parcells, who was an Arbour admirer. The two coaches shared a my-way-or-the-highway reputation. Could that work these days? Probably not.
"Modern players wouldn't put up with a lot of the ways Al did things. That's just not how it's done today," said Ed Westfall, Arbour's first Islanders captain and a friend for the rest of his life. "He would have to have a lot of support from the owner and general manager."
Still, there is no doubt among his former players that Arbour could do what he had to do to reach current players. Truth is, he was just the opposite of the stereotypical tough guy who sees players merely as chess pieces. There is a difference between consistency and rigidity. Arbour was the former.
"I'd say, 'I can tell by the sound of your whistle, we're doing the same thing at the same time in practice every day,' " Westfall said. "I realized that there was a reason for it."
The reason was that he wanted to make sure his teams kept on the same even keel he was on.
"It didn't matter whether you were a guy who played four minutes a game or 24 minutes a game. He treated everybody the same," Westfall said.
That meant everybody had dignity in his eyes, and he would do whatever he could to bring out the best in them. He was a players' coach before that term was invented, too. Bob Bourne has told about being in a slump and having Arbour come up to him and say, "You don't realize how good you are. You are a great player."
Bourne left the room feeling as if he were flying.
Arbour wasn't a miracle worker. When the money dried up and scouting came up empty in the late 1980s, he had losing teams. Still, he had a rare gift for turning mediocre into good and good into great. Consider that through all of their changes in ownership, management and coaching, the Islanders have not won a single playoff series since Arbour led them to a big upset over the defending champion Penguins in 1993.
Sure, it is a crying shame that there will be no moment of silence for Arbour at Nassau Coliseum. But he understood that you don't mope about fate. If you're down 3-0 in a series, you just keep going, and who knows what can happen?
He was ahead of his time, and he is gone too soon.