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.