The Great One had the highest regard for Al Arbour, whom he considered a great guy.
"Oh my gosh. I don't know if hockey has ever had a classier man involved with the game. He was so well-respected," Wayne Gretzky said of the late Islanders coach after following Dustin Johnson, his daughter's fiancee, at The Barclays on Sunday.
"My dad always said, one thing in life you can't do is buy respect," said Gretzky, who was stunned to hear about Arbour's death in Florida on Friday. "You have to earn respect. Al was the kind of person who everybody really liked and gravitated to but really respected. And the game of hockey is not the same today without him. Just a good man."
Gretzky was developing his reputation as one of the greatest hockey players of all time when his Edmonton Oilers went up against the Arbour-coached Islanders in historic postseasons. The Islanders beat Edmonton in the 1983 Finals to secure their fourth straight Stanley Cup. Then Gretzky and his teammates began their own era, ending the Islanders' unmatched run of 19 straight playoff series wins in the 1984 Finals.
"Even the first time we played the Islanders in the Stanley Cup playoffs," Gretzky said, referring to a six-game series in 1981, "one of the things we talked about before each and every game -- we were kids then, 19- and 20-year-old kids -- was always the same: 'This team is well-coached, this team is disciplined. We're not going to beat them just on skill because they're so well-coached.'
"We as players understood," he said outside the Plainfield Country Club clubhouse. "The hockey community is a small world. Every player knows the respect factor that people have for someone like Al Arbour -- a wonderful person who got respect from everybody who played with him, against him or for him."