When Al Arbour passed away a few days ago, I couldn’t help but think back to his presence on the first Stanley Cup winning team (1961-'62) of my then young Maple Leaf fandom.
I can’t add anything about Arbour’s successful coaching life that others have not already commented on elsewhere. He was clearly one of the finest coaches in the NHL for many years. His Islanders won those four Stanley Cups in succession between 1980 and 1983, and it took the maddeningly talented and (finally) committed Edmonton Oilers to dethrone Al’s proud Islander squad in the spring of 1984.
What I recall fondly is more Arbour as a player back in the old “Original Six” days, along with his time in the early days of expansion, post 1967.
In that late 1950s and early 1960s era, the Leafs under then GM and coach Punch Imlach were building a championship squad around goalie Johnny Bower and four defensemen who played almost all the time (Brewer, Baun, Horton, Stanley). They fleshed out their “strength up the middle” philosophy with Red Kelly, Bobby Pulford, Dave Keon and Billy Harris as their four centers.
When it came to defense “extras”, being the 5th guy back then was like being the 7th guy nowadays—you didn’t often get into the game-night lineup at all unless one of the top four defenders were hurt, or Imlach wanted to inject a little offense on the sometimes struggling Leaf power play. (In this regard, Kent Douglas, a rugged customer who could also handle the point well on the power play comes to mind. Earlier, my old hometown boyhood hero, Marc Reaume, fit that bill before he was traded to the Red Wings for Red Kelly.)
But if I remember correctly, during the 1961-’62 season, Al Arbour was the guy who played that versatile but sometimes invaluable role as the 5th guy on our defense.
Interestingly, Arbour had played the season prior with the Chicago Blackhawks, who just happened to oust the then 5-time defending Champion Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals. (That was one of the happy moments of my young sporting life, as I was far from a Hab follower, despite the influence of my Dad and two older brothers who were devoted Montreal fans.) But when Arbour was claimed in the NHL’s intra-league draft in the summer of ’61, I’m sure it did not cause any kind of reaction in the Toronto newspapers. (Nowadays, we would devote several days of discussion and debate on the value of this type of summertime move in Leafland on all-sports radio and of course via social media.)
Arbour, who had actually started his NHL career with the Red Wings, brought a useful quality to the Leaf situation—in fact, a number of fine qualities. He was the classic team player. He worked hard despite his seeming limited skating and puck handling skills. The guy certainly had guts, because he played with glasses when that was highly unusual in hockey.
Too, he was an outstanding shot-blocker, something he became not only adept at but somewhat known for during his later years playing for a young Scotty Bowman (the future Hall of Fame coach) in St. Louis.
In short, Arbour was a steady, solid, defenseman who delivered the kind of consistent performance Imlach was looking for when one of his big guys was struggling or hurt. And I remember that he certainly helped the Leafs in the playoffs against his old team, the Hawks, as the Toronto won the Cup finals in Game Six right in Chicago Stadium.
I still recall, though a bit vaguely, a story that longtime Toronto Telegram/Globe writer Scott Young told in his great book called, “The Leafs I Knew” about those tremendous Toronto teams of the early 1960s. The story is a bit hazy now, but it had to do with one of the Leaf centers (Kelly, I believe) being injured during a game. Imlach was suddenly looking for an able body on the bench who could play center for a few shifts. Arbour, recognizing he was not exactly known for his fancy playmaking, immediately turned around to the Leaf trainer (perhaps Tommy Naylor?) and said, “Get me my stick handling stick…”—his offer to Imlach that Al was ready to play that role if Imlach decided he needed help.
Watching Arbour develop in later years as a player and then as a coach, that story kind of demonstrated to me that Al was not only willing to poke a bit of fun at himself, but he was also prepared to do anything to help his team. He likely well knew his limitations as a player, but he gave everything he had.
He surely understood that truly great teams don’t win because of talent alone. Much more is needed.
Arbour stayed with the Leaf organization for several seasons, helping the American Hockey League Rochester Americans win some Calder Cup championships along the way before moving on the become the captain (and later coach) of the NHL Blues.
In later years, as a coach, he helped to build—and guided—those Islander teams around that “everything for the team” concept. Yes, he had players who became stars or superstars like Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Mike Bossy, Butch Goring, Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier. But he also had a team full of guys including Eddie Westfall (the former Bruin), Lorne Henning, Gerry Hart, Bob Nystrom, Bob Bourne, Dave Langevin, Duane and Brent Sutter and others who formed a fantastic roster— skilled and gritty.
Talk about hating to lose.
So for those who only knew of Al as a great coach and maybe didn’t remember or weren’t fortunate enough to be around when Arbour was a proud Maple Leaf, I just thought I’d share a few memories.