Glasses probably attached, Al Arbour came into this world 85 years ago yesterday and remains a warm, stern and wonderful father figure in so many corners of Islanders Country. When Al walked into a room, you knew it. Few people in any walk of life have used their charisma, commanding presence, booming and sometimes soothing voice for more good.
The greatest coach in any sport ever? A few others tend to be in the forefront of the debate, but you can never go wrong by waving the Islanders' nineteen consecutive playoff series victories in your opponent's face. In any friendly arguments at the bar, I prefer to say, Al Arbour was just the greatest, man.
You've heard many of the tales of the Islanders' evolution under Al from 1973 through the four straight Stanley Cups. So let's just take it back a quarter-century to the other time he performed miracles, with the 1992-93 Islanders, for an example of how he pushed the right buttons.
Al called Ray Ferraro "Seagull," because to the coach's mind, "He's always either talkin' or poopin." Ray missed three months of the '92-93 season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. When he returned, still not quite 100 percent, he was invisible his first three games.
"Awful, no argument," Ray said last night from the airport, on his way to broadcast another game. (Yes, Al, now he's getting paid to talk!)
Two hours before his fourth game back, Ferraro was in the stick room when he overheard Al's unmistakable voice from the hallway direct the equipment manager, "Joey, tell the Seagull to come see me."
Ferraro walked into the coach's office.
"Seagull, I want to be clear here," said Arbour. "You've got three more games. If you don't start figurin' it out, you'll be sitting with my wife Claire -- and she's been sitting in the same seat for more than 20 years!"
As always, Al delivered the message in the right way, with the right tone, to someone he knew could handle it and not wither. Ferraro figured it out, carrying the Islanders in the playoffs with a stunning 13 goals as they defeated Washington and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
Even as Ferraro was heroic with Pierre Turgeon injured, he still wasn't above Radar's wrath. In the third period of the Game 5 loss that year to Pittsburgh, Ferraro was on the ice looking hopeless on a faceoff play as the puck found its way to Joey Mullen, who scored a shorthanded goal. Ferraro skated to the bench, furious.
Ray recalled, "I started yelling, 'Who changed the faceoff alignment? Who changed it?' I was so pissed."
There was silence. Ferraro didn't play the last ten minutes of the game. The next day, the center went into the coach's office and apologized.
"I really felt bad," said Ferraro. "I shouldn't have done that, with the team and all the coaches around. It was wrong. So I said to Al, 'I'm sorry…it'll never happen again.' I figured Al would say, 'No problem. Heat of battle. Let's move on.' Nope. What I got was, 'You're goddman right it won't!'"
Ferraro laughed, recalling the sound of Al's voice. "We won the next two games and the series. What a coach he was. He knew when to give us all a kick. We all loved him."
For Long Islanders, he was the approachable local legend. Al knew how to talk to people. He got the most out of his players and staff, but he also gave plenty back.
January 25, 1997 was Al Arbour Night at the Coliseum. Al was three years removed from his second and final stint as Islanders coach, and it was time to raise a banner in his honor. I missed that game. My father had passed away two days earlier.
Al's night was beautiful, generating all the warmth you'd expect. He hated the spotlight, but couldn't avoid it that weekend. He was big news one more time.
My dad's funeral was two days later. Picture the scene. Our Lady of Mercy church in Hicksville. It's a somber occasion, naturally, but my dad is from an Italian family. He had a few dozen cousins, and it's not really a joke to say most of them were named Joe. In the minutes before the service began, that church was pretty buzzy as Dad's friends and relatives were catching up.
And then, all of a sudden, a hush fell over the place. I thought the priest had arrived. No.
It was Al and Claire, taking their seats. Just the sight of Al Arbour, the gentleman, hushed even all those old Rangers fans from the Bronx.
Al Arbour is missed, but he is always on our minds.