Sunday, February 20, 2011

For Old Time's Sake

Promotions and publicity stunts are an everyday part of sports.

Whether it's a giveaway item, a special ticket offer, or a game-related ceremony that honors a former player or coach -- it's all designed with the fans in mind. It's intended to grab their attention -- and keep them coming back to future games. Rarely, however, does the promotional event affect the game itself.


On November 3rd, 2007, the New York Islanders came up with a unique way to honor their longtime former coach, Al Arbour. The man who led the Islanders for 1,499 regular season games, 739 wins and 4 consecutive Stanley Cups during his 19-year Hall-of-Fame coaching career was getting one more opportunity behind the bench. At the request of head coach Ted Nolan, Arbour -- at 75-years-old -- would lead the Islanders against the talented Pittsburgh Penguins.

Al Arbour guided the Islanders for 19 seasons

As expected, Arbour took the part-time job very seriously...spending weeks getting to know the Islanders' roster and players' tendencies. This was not a ceremonial figurehead position -- Arbour wanted to win. But with the Islanders garnering few pre-season expectations among National Hockey League experts, and the Penguins emerging as a perennial Stanley Cup contender, it would not be easy.

In terms of ticket sales, the promotion worked -- the 16,234-seat Nassau Coliseum was sold-out -- and there was a genuine buzz that the man affectionately dubbed "Radar" would be coaching the Islanders once again, if only for one night.

Arbour was synonymous with the Islanders' success. After taking over coaching duties for the fledgling franchise in 1973-74, he led the Isles to 12 straight playoff appearances until his 1st retirement following the 1985-86 season. During that time, he guided over one of the NHL's last great dynasties...with the Islanders winning Stanley Cups in 1980, '81, '82 and '83. The Islanders' 15 consecutive playoff series victories from 1980-84 remains an NHL record.

Arbour coached the last great NHL dynasty

In 1992-93, Arbour coached the Islanders during their last great playoff run -- upsetting the two-time defending champion Penguins and advancing to the Wales Conference Finals. The Isles have not won a Stanley Cup Playoff series since then.

Inside the building, the main scoreboard above center ice served as a reminder of the special event. With the Islanders' familiar colors of blue, orange and white serving as a background...the video screen featured "Al Arbour Night" in big black letters. Beneath the marquee was a photo of Arbour during the dynasty well as the logos of both the Islanders and Penguins. At the bottom, in orange, was the number "1,500"...signifying the old coach's milestone achievement. Fans continually took photos of the scoreboard before the game got underway.

Honoring the legendary coach by giving him one last game behind the bench

The ceremonial faceoff featured hockey royalty, in tribute to Arbour. With Islanders' captain Bill Guerin and Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby gathered at center ice, they were accompanied by Hall-of-Fame general manager Bill Torrey -- Arbour's former boss on Long Island...and Hall-of-Fame former coach Scotty Bowman -- under whom Arbour served as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues in the late-1960s.

Bill Torrey and Scotty Bowman drop the ceremonial first pucks

Some of the greatest players in Islanders' history were also in attendance. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Pat LaFontaine -- all Hockey Hall-of-Famers -- made the trip to Uniondale to watch their old coach attempt to do his magic behind the bench.

A packed Nassau Coliseum on "Al Arbour Night"

The more-talented Penguins took control of the game, grabbing a 2-0 lead on a 1st period goal by winger Ryan Malone, and an early 2nd period goal by rookie forward Tyler Kennedy. During the middle of the 2nd stanza, Islanders' forward Trent Hunter scored to cut the deficit in half.

Arbour behind the bench once again

With the Islanders still trailing 2-1, their task of making a comeback became more difficult. Starting goalie Rick DiPietro was struck under the mask with a high-stick...and the resulting injury forced him to leave the game. Backup netminder Wade Dubielewicz -- who had played in just one of the Islanders' first 10 games of the season -- was now called upon to keep the high-scoring Penguins at bay. Would "Al Arbour Night" end with a whimper?

Backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz makes an emergency appearance

As the 3rd period got underway, the Islanders appeared determined to win it for their one-day, legendary coach. With 14:30 remaining, forward Miroslav Satan scored to tie the game at 2...and Nassau Coliseum went into a frenzy. The game developed a playoff-like atmosphere, as the scrappy Islanders tried to send Al Arbour into the NHL sunset as a winner. The fans sensed this as well -- every Islanders' shot on goal brought the crowd to the edge of its collective seat, while every Penguins' scoring chance resulted in a building full of held breaths.

The scoreboard seems to be in suspended animation

With every second that continued to tick on the clock, the tension would increase. The scoreboard seemed stuck at 2-2. Finally, with 2:41 left in regulation, the Islanders broke Satan netted his 2nd of the game! When Satan's rebound shot reached the back of the net, Nassau Coliseum exploded in leapt to their feet, as did the players on the Islanders' bench. It was just a November regular season game, but it had taken on a much deeper meaning.

Islanders grab the lead!

Now the Islanders -- who did not hold a lead for the game's first 57 minutes -- had to hold on, with their backup goalie minding the nets. It was a success -- the defense tightened up and Dubielewicz was solid in the crease. As the buzzer sounded, people in the stands began high-fiving and hugging. The players, meanwhile, converged at the bench to congratulate the man-of-the-hour, Al Arbour.
The entire Islanders team greets Arbour after the win

Following the game, a ceremony ensued to honor Arbour for his most recent accomplishments. The Islanders presented Arbour and his family with a framed jersey bearing the number "1500."

The old "739" banner is lowered and rolled up

Afterward, a banner signifying Arbour's career wins with the Islanders -- 739 -- was lowered from the Nassau Coliseum ceiling. Fans cheered along, chanting "7-40! 7-40!" to reflect his updated win total. In its place went a "1500" banner, with Arbour's name displayed prominently at the top. The entire Islander team gathered around their temporary coach as the white, orange and blue banner was lifted to the rafters. When the banner reached its peak, indoor fireworks went off...while orange-and-blue confetti fell from the ceiling.

With much fanfare, the new "1500" banner takes its place in the Coliseum rafters

The celebration even continued in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot, as fans simulated the "Let's Go Islanders" chant with their car horns. Hempstead Turnpike was filled with happy Islander fans who didn't mind the post-game traffic jam.

Following Arbour's 2nd retirement, the Islanders endured over a decade of dubious moments. Playoff appearances were few-and-far-between and short-lived...while concerns about the franchise's long-term future had become prominent. But for one night, at least, it felt like the 1980s in Uniondale...and a legendary head coach had everything to do with it.

A trip to the past brings a memorable present

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