Al Arbour, the bespectacled gentleman of a coach who molded a young and talented New York Islanders franchise into an NHL dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, has died. He was 82.
The Islanders confirmed Arbour's death in a release issued Friday afternoon. Arbour had been in declining health, battling Parkinson's disease and dementia, and living in a long-term care facility in Florida.
Beginning in 1973-74, Arbour led the Isles to 15 playoff appearances and won 119 playoff games — an NHL record with one team — over 19 seasons. His 740 career regular-season wins with the Islanders are the most with one NHL team.
"Al will always be remembered as one of, if not the greatest coaches ever to stand behind a bench in the history of the National Hockey League," Islanders President and general manager Garth Snow said. "From his innovative coaching methods, to his humble way of life away from the game, Al is one of the reasons the New York Islanders are a historic franchise."
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 in the builder category, Arbour had success as a player but his real talent was in coaching.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Arbour was brilliant as a tactician and coach.
"Al Arbour directed the Islanders' rapid transformation from expansion team to NHL powerhouse," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement released by the league. "As it grieves the loos of a profound influence on coaching and on the game itself, the NHL sends its heartfelt condolences to Al's family and friends, to his former teammates and to all the players he motivated."
The defensive-minded defenseman won titles with the Detroit Red Wings in 1954, the Chicago Blackhawks ('61) and the Toronto Maple Leafs in '62 and '64 during an NHL career that spanned three decades and 14 seasons. His last four seasons were with the expansion St. Louis Blues, who took him to three more Cup finals and gave him his start behind the bench.
His coaching statistics were even better. Besides the four consecutive Cups, he won 782 games, making him the NHL's second winningest coach behind his mentor, Scotty Bowman (1,244). The Islanders also set an NHL record by winning 19 consecutive playoff series.
No team in any major sport has won four straight titles since Arbour's Islanders did it. The Montreal Canadiens hold the NHL record with five straight titles (1956-60).
Bowman referred to the Islanders string of series wins as a record that will be tough to break. And he called it a testament to Arbor for being able to enjoy so much success with one franchise.
"Most of us coaches, we have to move around to get our message across," Bowman told The Associated Press by phone on Friday. "But he was able to do it over a 20-year span. It's an awesome feat. You're dealing with completely new players but with the same team. I think that tells you a lot about him, that's for sure."
Arbour's success was a result of a lengthy period of stability on Long Island, where he was the coach of a team that was built by general manager Bill Torrey — the franchise's first employee. In their heyday, the Islanders core players included forwards Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, defenseman Denis Potvin and goalie Billy Smith.
Former Islanders player Ray Ferraro paid tribute to Arbour on Twitter, saying: "Have so many thoughts on passing of Al Arbour. So sad, he impacted my career, life deeply. Rest peacefully Al."
Arbour's last win came in 2007, when the Islanders brought the then 75-year-old out of retirement to coach his 1,500th game with the franchise, a 3-2 win over the Penguins.
Arbour's death comes at a time when the Islanders are in transition. The franchise is moving from its longtime and outdated home — Nassau Coliseum — in Uniondale, New York, to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this season.
The NHL named Arbour its coach of year in 1979. The Sudbury, Ontario, native also was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1992 for contributions to ice hockey in the United States.
"He had that special touch that only a few people are gifted to have naturally," said former goaltender Glen 'Chico' Resch, who played on the Islanders' first title team. "It's sort of like the superstar hockey player who has that special talent to score goals but continues to be humble and accommodating and everyone loves the guy."
One of the last NHL players to play wearing glasses, he never hesitated to go down and block shots and he had a couple of hundred stitches to prove it. As a coach, he respected his players, but found ways to push them. Failing to listen would result in fewer shifts and games missed.
"He hated to tell people they were not playing," Resch said.
Resch said the Arbour was one of the few coaches in his era who did not coach from "a position of fear." He did what he had to do to win, Resch said.
"He coached a team that overachieved in 1974 and then led a Stanley Cup team that reached every ounce of its potential," Resch said.
As a player, Arbour finished with 12 goals and 58 assists in 626 career games.
Bowman was with the Blues when they acquired Arbour in the NHL expansion draft. And it was Arbour who eventually succeeded Bowman as coach in St. Louis.
"He made the league and stayed in the league only because he was able to work harder than the next guy," Bowman recalled. "And I think that's where his work ethic was a reason why he had so much success."
In retirement, Arbour was an avid NHL follower and sometimes critic.
During the 2012 playoffs, he complained about the NHL's inconsistencies in disciplining players, and how it led to stars such as Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux having to become involved in fights to defend themselves.
Arbour also voiced complaints about how quickly teams lose patience with coaches and general managers, wondering if he would have coached the Islanders for as long as he did in today's game.
"The minute you lose a few games, you get the hammer, you get canned," Arbour told The AP in 2010. "It's craziness. The guy they get is not any better."
He is survived by his wife Claire, and children Joann, Jay, Julie and Janice.