Huntington residents had the chance to say goodbye to an unforgettable champion.
On Friday, April 8, New York Islanders fans and former players gathered at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Huntington for a Mass celebrating the life of Al Arbour, the team’s late head coach who led the team to four straight Stanley Cup Championships starting in 1980. The Islanders are the only American team to ever do so in the National Hockey League.
The 19-year coach, a former Cold Spring Harbor resident, died in August at 82 years old. He and his family were members at the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington for more than 30 years.
Arbour won 119 playoff games with the Islanders, which is an NHL record for most wins by a coach with one franchise. During the 1980s, Arbour led the Islanders to 19 straight playoff series wins, which is still a record for all of North American professional sports. He was elected to the NHL Hall of Fame in 1996.
“Al was a man of respect, integrity and honesty,” said Joe McMahon, the team’s equipment manager and one of the organizers of the week’s events, during a phone interview Thursday. “He had a massive impact on the community. For kids that are playing hockey now on Long Island, I don’t know if you’d even be playing hockey on Long Island if it wasn’t for Al. Who knows if hockey would have survived on Long Island.”
Some Islander greats, including Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom, Denis Potvin, Chico Resch and Pat LaFontaine, attended the Mass. McMahon said he and other alumni chose April 7 and 8 for the events because playoff time was very special to Arbour, and the Islanders-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden Thursday night presented a perfect opportunity for fans and alumni to come together to remember the legendary coach while watching the game.
Former Islanders’ goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch, who played on the team from 1973 to 1981, called Arbour kind, merciful, patient and full of humility.
“Al certainly wasn’t perfect, but in my life, he had the greatest impact, and it was because of those qualities that we loved our beloved coach so much,” Resch said during the Mass, struggling to fight back tears.
Gillies, who was elected into the NHL Hall of Fame in 2002 and played under Arbour for more than a decade and was a key contributor in all four Stanley Cup seasons, delivered the eulogy Friday. After sharing stories and laughs about his time spent with Arbour, Gillies read from a poem.
“I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend,” Gillies read. “He referred to the dates on his tombstone that dated from the beginning to the end. He noted that first came the date of his birth, and he spoke of the following date with tears. But he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years,” Gillies continued.
“Al, thank you for letting me share your dash,” Gillies said at the conclusion of the poem.
The Mass came on the heels of a celebration Thursday at the Fox Hollow Inn in Woodbury that included dinner, cocktails, appearances by current and former Islanders players and televisions broadcasting the Islanders 4-1 victory over the Rangers. Panel discussions hosted by Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald carried on between periods of the game.
All net proceeds raised by the events were donated to the Al Arbour Fund, which benefits dementia research. McMahon said dementia contributed to Arbour’s death.
The Islanders concluded a successful regular season in their first year playing at Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center, after 43 years at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. The team will start a playoff run for their elusive fifth Stanley Cup this week.
“We lost a legend,” McMahon said.
Anyone interested in making donations should visit www.AlArbour.com.