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Stanley Cup

New York Islanders forward Clark Gillies delivers the eulogy at a Mass celebrating Al Arbour’s life April 8, 2061, at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Huntington. Photo by Alex Petroski

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.

Many of Islanders’ coach Al Arbour’s friends were in attendance at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Huntington Friday to celebrate his life, including a friend he captured four times—The Stanley Cup. Photo by Alex Petroski
Many of Islanders’ coach Al Arbour’s friends were in attendance at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Huntington Friday to celebrate his life, including a friend he captured four times—The Stanley Cup. Photo by Alex Petroski

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.

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The Rinx in Port Jefferson is a favorite spot for Suffolk County hockey fans. Photo by Alex Petroski

Through 45 games, the New York Islanders sit in second place in the National Hockey League’s Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the New York Rangers. On the ice, the first half of their inaugural season in Brooklyn has looked similar to the past few years for the Islanders — they look like a playoff team with the potential to make a run at the Stanley Cup in the spring.

Off the ice is a different view: With 25 of the team’s 41 regular season home games in the books, the Islanders are 28th out of the NHL’s 30 teams in average attendance, drawing a little more than 13,000 people per game, according to approximate figures reported by media outlets, including ESPN.

The league does not confirm official attendance statistics until the end of the season, but reported that the Islanders drew more than 15,000 fans on average during their final run at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, in the 2014-15 hockey season.

The trip from Smithtown to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where the Barclays Center is located, takes more than an hour and a half by car. Taking the train from the Long Island Rail Road’s Smithtown train station takes about two and a half hours, including a change at Jamaica Station.

In an unofficial TBR Newspapers poll of Islanders fans from Suffolk County, most people said they had not yet been to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to watch the Islanders this year.

Ron Carlson, a Port Jefferson resident and former village recreation director who had season tickets to the Coliseum for about 10 years, said the trip is too far by car and “I’m not a train person.” He has not been to a home game yet this season.

Erin Morano, of Shoreham, who regularly used to take her family of five to games in Nassau, hasn’t been to a game in 2015-16 either.

“It’s not as convenient,” Morano said. “Parking is tough and expensive in Brooklyn.”

Brittney Skarulis, of Smithtown, used to attend Islander games as a fan and an employee, but not so far in Brooklyn.

“It’s too far to go and the traffic is terrible,” Skarulis said. “I was a guest Islander ice girl when the games were in Nassau Coliseum. It was more convenient to go there than the Barclays Center.”

Some parents, like Ken Hayes from East Setauket, said it’s hard to bring their kids to game due to the long ride home — when games begin at 7 p.m. and end anywhere between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., they would get home too late.

Hayes went to his first game in Brooklyn in January. He said that it was fairly quiet for a hockey game.

Distance, lack of convenience, lack of parking and expense of the travel were the most common explanations for those who haven’t yet taken in a game this season. No one had a bad thing to say about the brand of hockey that the Islanders are putting on the ice. With a young core of talented players, the team is trending in the right direction. But fans from Suffolk County are not there to witness it as frequently in 2015 and 2016.