Brent Sutter will forever be grateful that Al Arbour was his first NHL coach.
The Red Deer Rebels owner/president/GM and head coach on Friday spoke fondly about his former New York Islanders bench boss, who died earlier in the day at the age of 82.
“It’s a tough day, a sad day,” said Sutter. “He touched every player that he coached. For me, personally, my (NHL) career wouldn’t have been what it was if it wasn’t for Al Arbour.”
Arbour coached the Islanders for 19 seasons. The club won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to ‘83, with Sutter experiencing the last two after joining the club early in the ‘81-82 season.
The legendary coach had a gift for pushing all the right buttons as basically a one-man show.
“He just had a great feel for the room and for the game,” said Sutter. “When you think about it, back in that day when we won Stanley Cups in the early ‘80s, there was only one coach on the bench. He ran the forwards and the defence, but he had just such a great pulse for it.
“I was very fortunate to have him as my coach, without a doubt he’s the best coach that I’ve every had as far as the way that he respected players, the way he talked to players and his mannerisms around players. He knew when to be strict and when not to be, but he never showed any disrespect to individuals.”
Arbour’s influence has remained with Sutter, whose playing career ended in 1998.
“Even after I was done playing, from a coaching perspective . . . I learned so much from him. Al was my mentor, a guy I looked up to when I came into the National Hockey League. He was like a father to all the players, he was someone who was always there for you.”
Sutter eventually became the Islanders captain and appreciated the confidence that Arbour showed in him.
“He had a good feel for letting you handle the room, and yet when he felt he needed to step in, he did,” said Sutter. “ But he had a lot of trust in myself as the captain.”
The Islanders, during their glory years, also featured the likes of future Hall of Fame inductees Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, yet Arbour didn’t show any preference to the more decorated players.
“He was always there for you and he kept everybody grounded,” Sutter recalled. “During the years when the Islanders were winning Cups they had some pretty high-profile players, but everyone parked his ego at the door, and if he didn’t Al made sure he did. He just knew how to handle everybody.
“Al was my mentor, the most respected man that I know in the game. He was someone who was more than just a coach. He was a person who cared very deeply for his players and never showed a lack of respect toward anyone. He was an amazing man.”