With Game 1 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals already in the books, we here at New York Sports Hub would like to get into the festivities by acknowledging some of the New York hockey greats that took their teams to extraordinary heights.
When it comes to NHL dynasties, many New Yorkers will be the first to bring up the power house that was the New York Islanders from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s. During that span, the Islanders were not only expected to be in the thick of it come playoff time, it was expected of them to win the Stanley Cup. From 1980 to 1983, the Islanders hoisted the cup each year. They remain the last American professional sports team to win four consecutive championships.
Several players that represented that dynasty were Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Bob Nystrom and Billy Smith, all of whom have had their numbers retired the organization. But when you think about it, these players, as talented as they were, were not able to coach themselves. For nearly their entire respective Islanders careers, they were led by one man who was there from the meager beginnings and turned the franchise into a winner: Al Arbour.
Coming over from the St. Louis Blues in the Islanders’ second season in 1973, Arbour was faced with the daunting task of converting an expansion team into contenders. At the time, many Long Islanders had been longtime Rangers fans, and they were not yet sold on their new neighbors. But Arbour and his crew knew that that would all change once the Islanders could prove that they can win.
At the age of 41, many began to wonder about the prospects of Arbour’s coaching career if he were to fail to turn around the Islanders. Renowned NHL head coach Scotty Bowman even said to Arbour, “You’re going to be in last place for ten years.”
Upon taking the job, Arbour, a former NHL defenceman, knew that he needed his team to be good defensively. Finishing with just 12 wins in their first season, Arbour’s Islanders won 19 games in his first season, and they allowed 100 goals less than they did the year before. They also got a boost that season with the addition of number-one pick Denis Potvin, who along with Nystrom and Smith would be mainstays with the Islanders well into the 80’s.
The next season, with the additions of trade acquisitions JP Parise and Jude Drouin and first-round pick Clark Gillies, the Islanders made the playoffs and improved to 33 wins. In the preliminary round, they stunned the Rangers 11 seconds into overtime in the decisive Game 3 with a goal by Parise. The next round, they pushed their luck even further. Down three games to none against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders rallied and took four in a row to steal the series away from Pittsburgh.
After that ’75 playoff run, the Islanders began an ascension that didn’t appear to have a peak in sight. Future 500-goal-scorer Trottier was picked up for the very next year and in 1977 they acquired right winger Mike Bossy, whose compulsive goal scoring became a benefactor to the Islanders’ style of winning.
In 1980, the Islanders finally pulled through and defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals to hoist their first Stanley Cup. It was the first of four straight Stanley Cups for the Islanders, and each year they continued to get better. From 1980 to ’84, the Islanders won 19 consecutive playoff series and from 1981 to ’83 they won nine consecutive Stanley Cup Finals games. After one more Finals appearance in 1984, the Islanders’ era of excellence was coming to a slow end. But that entire time, the core of players stayed intact, the confidence never wavered and overlooking it all was the man who put the pieces in place for one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in the history of sports: Mr. Al Arbour.
Arbour finished his Islanders career winning 739 games and coaching in 1499 games. However, that didn’t seem right to some people, especially to then Islanders head coach Ted Nolan in 2007. On November 3 of that year, Nolan invited a 75-year-old Arbour to coach his 1500th game as an Islander. Trailing 2-0 against the Penguins, the Islanders staged a comeback and scored three unanswered goals to give Arbour his 740th victory as an Islanders coach. After the game, the Islanders removed the “739” banner from the rafters in honor of Arbour and changed it with a “1500” banner.
For all of his coaching accomplishments, Al Arbour will always be seen by Islanders fans as a hero-life figure that brought competitive hockey to Long Island and a dynasty that may never be matched again in American professional sports.