Sunday, November 4, 2007

Radar's Triumphant Return

Al Arbour Leads Isles to Thrilling 3-2 Victory Over Pens, Earns 740th Win in 1,500th Game

There have been times over the last decade when the collective hockey community rolled its eyes at another Islanders special ceremony. Just a desperate ploy to sell more tickets, they said. This was not one of those nights. This one was note perfect. The NHL spotlight was clearly shining on Uniondale, despite the noted absence of commissioner Gary Bettman, whose presence would have been appropriate on a night when Al Arbour became the first man to coach 1,500 games for one team. The occasion brought out such luminaries as Scotty Bowman, and Islanders legends and favorites Bill Torrey, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Ed Westfall, Butch Goring, Pat LaFontaine, Gerry Hart, Jean Potivn, Steve Webb, Benoit Hogue, Eric Cairns, and more.

If you can imagine an empty arena an hour and a half before face off being abuzz, such was the case at Nassau Coliseum Saturday night. The electronic signage rotated through displaying Al Arbour's name, the number 1500, and words like character and grit. Mini versions of the banner that would be raised later that night in honor of the old coach adorned the facade fronting the upper bowl. The November 3, 2007 version of the Media Notes listed the following for the Isles:

Head Coach Al Arbour
Head Coach Ted Nolan

Tom Liodice of The Tiger Track was lightheartedly credited with the first scoop of the evening when he noticed a chair behind the Islanders' bench,
there perhaps just in case the 75-year-old legend needed to get off his feet for a few minutes. There have been no reports of him ever sitting down. And to remind us all of how far this franchise has come since Radar retired, you only had to watch the pre-game replay on the scoreboard of the ceremony at which the 739 banner was raised to the Coliseum rafters. That night, a still-active Brent Sutter paid homage to his former coach as a member of the Blackhawks, and Al thanked then-pseudo-owner John Spano during his speech.

As the game began, with the Isles in their white jerseys to honor the era in which Arbour achieved his greatest coaching success, there was a palpable sense that this appearance was far from ceremonial. Two aspects of this night contributed to it being far more thrilling than anyone might have dared to imagine. Firstly, the genesis of the idea to bring Arbour back came from Ted Nolan. So there was never the least bit of thought that the hall-of-famer's presence was in any way an imposition on the team. Indeed, the team seemed motivated and proud to honor Arbour every step of the way. Secondly, this honor was tied to actual competition. It's one thing to ask your aging legendary franchise figure to come back behind the bench for one game. It's another to have him win. For one night, the Islanders resurrected Fort Neverlose.

Please visit this small gallery of images from the game. When you're done there, do yourself a favor and take a look at the beautiful shots in Tom's gallery, as well as the gorgeous ones that B.D. Gallof got in his blog for HockeyBuzz.

Yes, there is plenty to say about the game itself, as well as the comments of both head coaches and the players they led to victory. Al spoke about how touched he was by the banner raising, which he wasn't expecting, and especially by all the fans who stayed around for the post-game ceremony. He admitted to being very nervous when he first walked out at the beginning of the game. Despite setting an initial condition of "no media," Al appeared willing to answer questions for longer than he ultimately had to. Ted gave Al more credit than he was willing to give himself for giving input on line changes and willing the team to win.

Miro Satan, whose two third-period goals tied and then won the game, had this to say about playing for Al Arbour: "We were trying to win the game, and definitely in the back of our minds, we knew every time we were coming back to the bench we saw a legend standing there. So we knew we had only one chance to win the game for him, so definitely that's even more special for us to win this way...and win the game for him."

The one negative on the night was that Rick DiPietro was not around for the ceremony. A second-period high stick from Sidney Crosby sent DiPietro to the hospital (and Crosby to the box for a double-minor after DiPietro returned from the locker room for a damage assessment by the referee) with an eye injury. At this point, the Islanders are saying he will be fine, but there seems to be some uncertainty about the extent of his injury.

Wade Dubielewicz filled in admirably for DiPietro, holding the Penguins off the scoresheet the rest of the way. Dublielewicz even did his best DiPietro impersonation when he connected on a long breakout pass to keep the power play moving near the end of the second period.

It's worth mentioning that the Islanders of yesterday and today finally seem to be in harmony. I had hoped to ask Ted Nolan about this during the post-game press conference, but as you can imagine, it was somewhat of a zoo, with at least 2-3 times as many photographers and reporters as usual. In fact, one of my favorite scenes of the night was looking back over my shoulder during the press conference and seeing Jean Potvin standing on a chair so he could get a better view of the proceedings. The players no longer seem to bristle at the notion of the franchise's history, and certainly don't seem to resent it. Perhaps the four cups no longer represent a burden to live up to, but a standard to reach for. The presence of the old players does not haunt them they way it did some Islander teams; it enriches the experience of being an Islander.

Last night, they all came together for a celebration. In the end, it had all the pomp and circumstance of a coronation, and the wearer of the crown has never been more deserving.

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