Arbour’s Islanders echoed the lessons of a respected teacher

The cornerstone of a hockey dynasty was faith. And with his team trailing three games to none in the quarterfinal round of the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs, New York Islanders coach Al Arbour showed the door to the nonbelievers.

He did it, the late J.P. Parise recalled, before the Islanders hit the ice for practice between Games 3 and 4. “He showed all the confidence in the world, and belief in us,” Parise told MSG Networks in 2012. “And he just said, ‘If anybody who thinks we can’t come back and beat that team, I want you to leave right away, and we’re going to go with people who are willing to work and do this.’ It was amazing. … We didn’t dare disappoint him, but more it was just a reassurance and belief in ourselves that this was something that we could do.”

The Islanders went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in an epic comeback, becoming only the second team in any major North American sport ever to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. In the very next round, they nearly duplicated the feat, coming back after losing the first three to the Flyers to force a seventh game in Philadelphia. The Islanders lost Game 7 to those “Broad Street Bullies,” who went on to win the Cup for a second straight year. But in just their third season of existence, Arbour’s Islanders had made a statement.

No longer were they the hapless expansion team that had managed a record-low 30 points in 78 games only two years earlier. Their 8-1 record in elimination games, starting with Parise’s overtime goal in Game 3 of a best-of-three opening series against the Rangers, proved they could thrive in the clutch — despite the fact that the Islanders had never made the playoffs before and most of the players had zero postseason experience prior to that spring.

The following fall, my seventh-grade homeroom teacher at Sacred Heart School in Yonkers, N.Y., happened to be an Islander fan. His name was Mr. Thomas Sepi. In that 1975-76 school year, I was one of his pupils for both religion (it was a Catholic school) and American history. I often would talk about sports with him after class, and he sometimes sounded like a coach when he was making a teaching point.

“Never give up,” Mr. Sepi was fond of saying.

The Islanders never gave up because Al Arbour never gave up. And having Mr. Sepi as my teacher at that time deepened my appreciation of the Islanders’ never-say-die team identity.

” ‘Can’t’ is the quitter’s national anthem,” Mr. Sepi would tell the class. Hours later, I would tune in to the Islanders’ game on WOR Channel 9 and see their can-do, no-quit attitude fuel their rise to the top of the National Hockey League. Or, if the game was at Nassau Coliseum and not available on over-the-air TV, I might listen to it on the radio. Mr. Sepi was the one who informed me that John Sterling — yes, Yankee fans, that John Sterling — was the Islanders’ radio play-by-play voice back then. More than once, I heard Mr. Sepi imitate Sterling’s trademark call of “GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL!”

As inspired as I was by the Islanders’ perseverance, however, I still found it difficult to fully embrace the sport of hockey. The goon tactics that tarnished the NHL’s image for so many years were repulsive to me. I started collecting all kinds of sports articles in the mid-’70s, including a Time magazine cover story with the headline, “Hockey: War on Ice,” and a Sports Illustrated cover showing the Rangers and Islanders brawling under the headline, “A Violent Sport Turns Vicious.” I even recall watching with my brother when a Rangers-Flyers game turned so ugly that I didn’t want to see any more — I left the room.

For me to be willing to overlook all that, a team had to make quite an impression — and Arbour’s Islanders did. They helped me to see hockey in a new light, see it as a game of skill and courage. Meanwhile, back at school, Mr. Sepi made me proud to root for a hockey team that never gave up. So I kept on rooting for the Islanders.  And in the decade that followed, they achieved a level of success that went far beyond my wildest seventh-grade dreams.

Four times in five years, the Islanders unveiled a rookie who would go on to a Hall of Fame career: Denis Potvin in 1973-74, Arbour’s first season as Islander coach; Clark Gillies, Mr. Sepi’s favorite Islander, in 1974-75; Bryan Trottier in 1975-76, and Mike Bossy in 1977-78. Each was acquired through the draft, and each made his debut at an age barely old enough to drink beer legally.

“There’s so many things that I can say about Al,” Potvin said. “I first met him when I was 19 years old and he coached me for 13 consecutive years. I don’t know how many athletes who have had that pleasure.”

“He was like a real father figure to all of us,” said Gillies. “We were a bunch of young kids. It was like having 20 young boys in the family and he was the father that kept us all under control.”

Arbour’s Islanders posted 100-point seasons and returned to the semifinals in 1976 and ’77. They were eliminated by the Montreal dynasty each time, but were the only playoff opponent to avoid a sweep against the powerful Canadiens those two years. They could exit the playoff stage with heads held high.

Then came two playoff upsets that tested Arbour’s faith in his boys like never before.

The Isles won their division for the first time in ’78, but were ousted by the Maple Leafs in OT of Game 7 in a series marred by the kind of violence that gave hockey a bad name. One story by an Islanders beat reporter began, “Toronto is a clean city with a dirty hockey team.” I’ll never forget the picture in the paper of Bossy, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling of Maple Leaf Gardens after being knocked out cold by a cheap shot in Game 6.

The Islanders entered the 1979 playoffs believing this would be their year. It wasn’t. After finishing first in the entire league during the regular season, they were upset by the Rangers in a six-game semifinal series that turned New York on its collective ear. Even the girls in my high school were talking about it. As columnist Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News, “The Rangers and Islanders have spoiled us. New York will never forget these hockey games.”

For Arbour, it was time to give his boys some tough love.

“It was the same thing as in the Toronto series,” Arbour said. “They felt sorry for themselves, losing right in their own backyard in a series they were supposed to win and didn’t. But it was our own doing. I didn’t want them to forget it. I wanted them to taste it for a while.”

But Arbour and the Isles were just getting started. They went on to win the Stanley Cup four consecutive years. From 1980-84, they won 19 playoff series in a row — an astonishing record that might stand forever. They were so dominant that except for two memorable best-of-five openers that came down to an overtime goal in Game 5, the Isles never faced elimination during the entire streak. Not once did they need a Game 7.

After the announcement Friday that Arbour had died at the age of 82, having battled dementia and Parkinson’s disease, the tributes came pouring in. Lupica recalled how Arbour encouraged reporters to interview his players, rather than basking in the attention and taking the credit himself.

Arbour finished his career No. 2 in NHL history in coaching wins, and his 740 victories with the Islanders are the most by any coach with one team. But he was also remembered for his humility, decency and kindness. Former Newsday beat writer Pat Calabria said that one day when he fell ill at the practice rink, Arbour stunned him by offering him a lift home.

“Here was one of the great coaches of all time driving me to my house. I can’t think of another coach of that stature who would do something like that,” Calabria said.

“You’ll never find a better man, or a better coach, for that matter,” longtime Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald told Newsday.

Many of his former players including Gillies, Trottier and Brent Sutter (who was Islander teammates with his brother Duane) referred to Arbour as a father figure. And like a good dad, Arbour told his boys that he believed in them.

“Al Arbour was a man that left us not only feeling like champions, but left us with a lot of great memories that we can carry on through life,” Potvin said.

“Al used to say that negative energy that you’re feeling, turn it into a positive energy. That has never left me. I know many of my teammates must feel the very same way. He just never felt that anything was insurmountable.”

Posted August 28, 2015

Sources: Islanders’ team website; NHL.com; MSG Networks; Sportsnet; The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner (Leisure Press, 1983); Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup (Total Sports Publishing Inc., 2000); Time magazine (February 24, 1975); Sports Illustrated (November 17, 1975); The (Yonkers) Herald Statesman (April 25, 1978); Daily News; Newsday.

If I had my way, these six guys would be enshrined in Canton

In a sport where each team has 22 starters — and that doesn’t even count special teams — it’s easy for an outstanding career to be overlooked. Add to the mix the great coaches and the executives who helped build the NFL, and many candidates worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame might never see their day in the sun.

On Wednesday, the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee announced that Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken (The Snake) Stabler and 1950s All-Pro guard Dick Stanfel will be nominees for induction in 2016. Both of them are recently deceased. If they are enshrined, following the induction of Junior Seau earlier this month, they would become the fifth and sixth players in an eight-year span to become Pro Football Hall of Famers posthumously.

I have my own list of former players I consider deserving of the Hall of Fame. All of my picks here would be Seniors Committee nominees, which means time is running out for them. In order to allow more Contributors Committee candidates to be enshrined, three fewer Seniors Committee choices will be made from 2015 to 2019. This year’s only Seniors choice — Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff — is 75 years old and did not make an acceptance speech at the ceremony, reportedly because of health problems that include loss of memory.

Two Seniors per year will be selected in 2016 and 2018, but only one each in 2017 and 2019. Wednesday’s announcement means that my choices for next year won’t make it, at least not in 2016. But whether the following men are ever enshrined or not, those who appreciate the sport’s history will always remember their contributions to the game:

2016: Jerry Kramer and Bob Kuechenberg — Sometimes I think the voters have the right team and the right position group, but the wrong guy. Such is the case with these two, both of whom were outstanding offensive linemen on championship teams.

How is it that neither of the pulling guards leading the Green Bay Packers’ legendary power sweep of the 1960s is in the Hall of Fame? The answer might be that in 1981, the selection committee chose longtime Green Bay center Jim Ringo instead of Kramer or Fuzzy Thurston. But Ringo played on just two of Vince Lombardi’s five NFL championship teams, and Lombardi considered him expendable in 1964, trading Ringo to Philadelphia.

Kramer did more than just draw attention to his previously anonymous position by writing his breakthrough football memoir Instant Replay. A week before his famous block opened the hole for the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl” against Dallas, Kramer rendered Rams great Merlin Olsen a non-factor in the Packers’ 28-7 stunner over once-beaten Los Angeles in the divisional playoffs. Two years later, in 1969, the Hall of Fame compiled a list of the greatest players by position to that point in NFL history. Kramer was chosen as the best offensive guard of the NFL’s first 50 seasons — but he remains the only player of the 16 selected for that all-time team not to have his bust displayed in Canton, Ohio.

Kuechenberg, playing with a heavily wrapped injured arm, got the better of Vikings great Alan Page as Larry Csonka rushed for 145 yards in the Dolphins’ 24-7 victory in Super Bowl VIII. Kuechenberg lined up side by side with two centers — Jim Langer (110 starts in 12 seasons) and Dwight Stephenson (87 starts in eight seasons) — who are in the Hall of Fame despite careers that weren’t nearly as long as Kuechenberg’s (176 starts in 14 seasons). He might have been a better choice than Langer, who was unable to crack Miami’s starting lineup in 1970 and ’71, while Kuechenberg started in Miami’s first-ever playoff game and first-ever Super Bowl those two years.

Kuechenberg was a Hall of Fame finalist eight consecutive years from 2002-09. The Hall already has Langer and Larry Little from Miami’s offensive line of the mid-1970s, and Ringo and Forrest Gregg from Green Bay’s of the early-’60s. But a third would not be unprecedented: Hall of Famers Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto once lined up side by side on Oakland’s offensive line.

In 1982, football historian and longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman “polled 25 NFL all-timers and asked them to name their candidates for ‘best ever’ offensive linemen, and these are the ones that kept coming up. … ” Kramer and Kuechenberg were both on the list that followed.

2017: Joe Klecko — As a lifelong New Yorker, I had an opportunity to see almost every game of Klecko’s career. It was a privilege, and by the time Klecko’s career with the Jets was winding down, I had come to the conclusion that he was a great one. First he made the Pro Bowl at defensive end. Then he made the Pro Bowl at defensive tackle. Then he made the Pro Bowl at nose tackle. On the legendary front four that was the “New York Sack Exchange,” Mark Gastineau may have had the style, but Klecko brought the substance.

His 20.5 sacks in 1981 came a year too early to count as an official statistic. Gastineau had 20 that season, as the two ends combined to terrorize quarterbacks and Klecko was named Defensive Player of the Year. But Klecko could also stop the run. He played through injuries. He played with effort and energy. And when he moved to the inside, he received from opponents the ultimate sign of respect — a steady diet of double-team blocking. Quite often, Klecko beat those double teams.

His final season was 1988, making him barely old enough to qualify for the Seniors Committee (a player’s career must have ended a minimum of 25 years prior). Besides my vote for him here, Jets fans have taken up a petition to support Klecko’s cause. However, Klecko likely will have to wait a while to see his bronze bust.

2018: Chuck Howley and Drew Pearson — Bobby Bell, Dave Wilcox and Dave Robinson all played outside linebacker in the same era as Howley. All three are in the Hall of Fame — but not Howley, who was just as good if not better. A five-time first-team All-Pro, Howley could stop the run, blanket running backs in pass coverage, or wreak havoc as a blitzer.

The speedy, playmaking Howley could be counted on for the big takeaway, as evidenced by his three interceptions in two Super Bowl appearances. Though Mike Curtis may have been more deserving of the MVP award he received, Howley was a big reason why the original “Doomsday Defense” led Dallas to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1970 and ’71. In six playoff games over those two seasons, the Cowboys allowed just four touchdowns, and Jim O’Brien’s field goal in the final minute of Super Bowl V marked the only time Dallas trailed in any of those games. Yet while the Kansas City Chiefs boast five Hall of Fame defenders from the 1969 championship team that didn’t even win its division, Dallas’ dominant group from 1970-71 has just three players in the Hall of Fame, one of whom (Herb Adderley) spent most of his career with Green Bay. “Doomsday” is underrepresented in Canton, and the addition of Howley — who gets my vote over teammates Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan and Cliff Harris — would help rectify that.

Those who claim that voters historically have been biased against the Cowboys also can point to the fact that of the 22 first-team offensive and defensive players on the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s Team, the only ones not enshrined in Canton are Harris, a hard-hitting safety, and Pearson.

Clint Longley and Roger Staubach didn’t agree on much, but one thing the rival Dallas quarterbacks did agree on was this: When the game is on the line, throw the ball to Drew Pearson. Longley did on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, Staubach did in the divisional playoffs in 1975, and each came away with the most memorable touchdown pass of his career. Besides those two winning bombs, Pearson is also remembered for the two scoring catches he made in the final minutes to deny the Atlanta Falcons in the 1980 divisional round and give the Cowboys yet another comeback victory. Danny White was Dallas’ quarterback in that game.

To Pearson, it didn’t matter who played quarterback. The first of the three star receivers to wear No. 88 for the Cowboys was “Mr. Clutch,” even though he was rail-thin at about 185 pounds. Pearson was a three-time first-team All-Pro, and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver in an era when few players achieved that milestone. He played in three Super Bowls, led the league in receptions in 1977, and finished his 11-year Dallas career with an even 16-yard average per catch.

Is Pearson overdue for induction? I’d say. In his book Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes, author Peter Golenbock refers to Pearson as “a certain future Football Hall of Famer.” That book was published 18 years ago.

2019: Jim Tyrer — The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Tyrer was voted the best left tackle in the history of the American Football League. A starter from his rookie year on, he played 180 consecutive games for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs franchise, a streak that began in 1961 and lasted till 1973. A key player on three AFL championship teams, he was a big reason why the Chiefs’ offensive line was able to control Minnesota’s great “Purple Gang” defense in Super Bowl IV.

“He was THE preeminent left tackle in all of football,” said Elvin Bethea, a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Houston Oilers. “All other blockers I faced in the NFL were mediocre compared to him. He would just swamp me each game to where I would be lucky to beat him even once in a game.”

Of all the players not in the Hall of Fame, Tyrer, who was named to nine straight all-star games, might be the best. One reason cited for his exclusion is a general lack of respect for players who spent most of their careers in the AFL. But the biggest reason why Tyrer’s career is not remembered might be that his death cannot be forgotten.

In 1980 — when there was much less awareness of the dangerous long-term effects of repeated blows to the head — Tyrer shot his wife Martha, then himself. The murder-suicide left behind four children.

Like many other former football players, Tyrer in retirement suffered from depression. It should be noted that treatment for depression, like treatment for concussions, has improved since 1980. “I felt my dad’s mental state at the end of his life must have been impaired and that very well could have been as a result of the trauma his brain experienced during his football career,” said Brad Tyrer, oldest son of Jim and Martha.

Tyrer — No. 77 in the photo below, with scratches all over his helmet — played in an era when offensive linemen were taught to use their heads as weapons. Rules of the time made it illegal for blockers to grab their opponents when protecting the quarterback. As if that weren’t enough to give pass rushers the edge, they were allowed to strike offensive players such as Tyrer in the head. Two fierce defensive ends who were contemporaries of Tyrer, David (Deacon) Jones and Rich (Tombstone) Jackson, both claimed to be the inventor of the head slap in long-ago interviews with NFL Films.

More recently, however, Jackson also said: “It is a travesty that Jim Tyrer has yet to be inducted into Canton.”

Posted August 20, 2015

Sources — St. Paul Pioneer Press; crazycantoncuts.blogspot.com; endzonescore.com; mmqb.si.com; NFL.com; ProFootballHOF.com; pro-footballreference.com; Great Teams’ Great Years: Kansas City Chiefs by Dick Connor, prepared by NFL Creative Services Division (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974); The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman (Simon and Schuster, 1984); Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes by Peter Golenbock (Warner Books, Inc., 1997).