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Al Arbour is What Can Always be Right about Sports

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Lots of sports personalities receive lofty praise upon their death. Al Arbour truly deserves every bit of it.

Florida Panthers v New York Islanders
Thank you, Al.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Every once in a while in life we lose someone whose death is not unexpected, and whose contributions to fellow humans have not gone overlooked, yet whose passing is still a painful reminder of how short even a long life can be.

Al Arbour’s death a year ago was no shock, in the relative terms we use for everyone’s inevitable conclusion, but it was a jarring moment for the now aging men he was famous for leading, those players who came of age as the best athletes in their prime, achieving their sport’s highest honor — repeatedly, passing obstacles faced by none who came before — under his tutelage.

That’s why, one safely infers, the nhl.com story of Arbour’s tribute by Brian Compton yesterday had this line in the opening:

The pain remained visible one year later for the loss of Arbour, who was viewed as a parent by many of his players.

Or, in the words of Mr. Islander Bobby Nystrom:

“I think the key word is that he taught us about life and how to become men, as well as being a hockey coach."

More from Nystrom:

“What is success? I think one measure is all the people you’ve come in contact with, how many did you help or positively affect? On this alone Al Arbour is head and shoulders above the rest of us. Just ask the hundreds of players he played with, or played for him...”

These are words heard about many a late leader, and it can feel frivolous to use them in the context of someone who was, after all, just a sports coach, of players hired to do the job, whose ultimate purpose is to entertain fans.

But that’s precisely why Arbour’s impact was so profound. Many a man has used Machiavellian means to achieve a frivolous sports glory end; Arbour used humane methods, which moved Islanders players to get in touch with what it meant to be human long after their time on the sporting stage passed.

(And no doubt, those attributes are true of many a school coach toiling away in virtual anonymity today on a teacher’s salary, carving out time to mentor kids through sports and embody the life well led. May each of them feel some sense of their impact through tributes to more famous examples like this.)

For Arbour it also translated to unprecedented success, winning 19 playoff series in a row.

None other than Scotty Bowman, himself a coaching legend albeit one seen as “distant” by so many players, noted Arbour’s impact on his own coaching, from their days together with the St. Louis Blues to their days competing as Arbour led the Islanders — whom Bowman warned would be “losing for 10 years” if Radar took the job — to dynastic success.

It’s worth noting, too, the grace with which Arbour handled annual calls for his firing. That’s right: Arbour led one of the best teams in the league, but its failure to go all the way to the Stanley Cup in its fifth or sixth or seventh year of existence was cause for some to say “enough with this guy.”

Good thing Bill Torrey didn’t listen to those cries.

Instead, Islanders fans got to witness the success and the many stories about the man we probably never would have heard if he hadn’t been around to see it all through.

Peel back the layers of an average pro sports championship today, and you get a group of people bonding in common pursuit, those bonds made stronger by success. You get a fanbase, perhaps a city or region, coming together in memorable ways. You get families finding moments to cherish. You get lots of merchandising.

Peel back the layers on Arbour’s days with the Islanders — extending to the motley crew in 1993, too — and you get all of that plus a legion of greying men who to this day call him a father figure.

That’s pretty cool.

Torrey also said yesterday:

"Whenever we had a difference of opinion, nobody else knew about it. The door was closed and we found a way to work it out. He learned, I learned. There will never be anyone just like this man. This is the third memorial on his passing a year ago. And believe me, no one deserves three memorials more than this man.”

Agreed.

Thanks for making this about more than hockey, Mr. Arbour. Thanks for providing an outlet for countless sons and daughters to better know their moms and dads. Thanks for giving an example of how to handle this mortal coil.

Tributes to Arbour

If you’re a younger fan, or a fan who thinks this is all a bit much, I encourage you to check out this story stream from a year ago when Arbour died. You’ll get it.

“I guess you get old, you get sentimental.”

Al Arbour