The Time Al Arbour Laced 'Em Back Up

With apologies, this too is not exactly an Islanders story. But it is about the guy who coached more Islanders games than any other man by far (1500, give or take a Ted Nolan token night).

Al Arbour, as you probably know, was hired by Bill Torrey after being dumped by the St. Louis Blues, tonight's opponent. A thrice Stanley Cup winner as a player in the pre-expansion era (once with Chicago, twice with Toronto), Arbour was the captain and talisman for the expansion Blues, who claimed him in the expansion draft.

In that Original Six vs. Next Six divisional setup, a new team was going to go to the Cup finals each year, but Arbour's team was the finalist all three years of that setup. He was also up there in playing years though, and Scotty Bowman had designs on being a GM. So when Bowman went upstairs in 1970-71, he tapped Arbour to be coach. Nice move, that.

But with the team stalling down the stretch (albeit at 21-15-14), Arbour did what no coach can do today: Dammit, if these guys aren't getting it done, I'll do it myself. At age 38, Arbour dressed for the final 22 games and six playoff games.

As St. Louis papers reported at the time:

General Manager Scotty Bowman and Coach Al Arbour each moved down one notch on the St. Louis Blues' table of organization as the aftermath to a trade with the Detroit Red Wings that rocked hockey-happy St. Louis.

Red Berenson, captain and scoring leader of the Blues, was traded along with right winger Tim Ecclestone to Detroit in exchange for center Garry Unger and right wing Wayne Connelly Feb. 6.

Arbour, in his first season as coach, asked Bowman to return him to the ice to help the Blues in the NHL Western Division stretch drive. Bowman in turn went back to coaching while continuing to perform as general manager.

[...]

Arbour said he would return to playing status "as soon as I'm in shape." The 38-year-old Arbour also will return to his former role as team captain.

The Blues lost in the first round to the Minnesota North Stars anyway (the Blackhawks, now in the expansion division, went to the finals). Arbour would return behind the bench the next season after Sid Abel and Bill McCreary didn't work out. (Bowman fled to Montreal after a skirmish with ownership, and it's usually said Blues owners became way too involved with the hockey side of operations in those days.)

Arbour would only last for parts of two more seasons as Blues coach before getting the ax as the Blues swooned in the mid '70s.

But he landed on his feet okay. At his next stop, he didn't even have to insert himself in the lineup.

* * *

Coda: A fun anecdote I tell too often but is too priceless to let go: When Arbour was offered the job for the second-year Islanders, he says Bowman told him, "You take that job, you'll be losing for 10 years."

Ten years later, Arbour was in the middle of a dynasty and Bowman was learning how tough being a GM (in Buffalo) can be.

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