Sunday, August 30, 2015

N.Y. Islanders: When Uniondale Was Al Arbour's Rome


Al Arbour:
A New York Sports Titan

New York Islanders: Nassau County was Al Arbour's Empire; Uniondale his Rome.

The Empire State - New York - Gotham...

...Where John McGraw ruled his Manhattan dynasty with an iron hand, while Robinson's Trolley Dodgers reigned over Kings County.

When threatened from within by the upstart Highlanders, John McGraw forever banished his former American League tenants from Coogan's Bluff.

Exiled, the resilient Col. Jacob Ruppert led his junior circuit club towards new terra firma across the river in Bronx, where he inaugurated a new Yankees dynasty with Babe Ruth as its liege.

New Amsterdam's three baseball empires effectively ruled the sports universe.  Football and Hockey were still undergoing their respective professional genesis, while pro basketball remained decades away.

Yet, neither one of them ever managed to dominate the entirety of this city despite major successes authored by Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Charlie Dressen/Walter Alston, et al..

The Yankees ultimately won the baseball wars, but only because California beckoned the elder O'Malley and Stoneham clans, whom were already in search of greater untapped fortunes elsewhere.

Even then, by baseball's very nature all three teams failed in establishing that singular unifying force that perhaps the Football Giants and Tex's Rangers created in New York between 1927 and 1956, during which the two enterprises combined on 7 championship seasons - and on three occasions within each other's footsteps.  If you were a Football Giants and Rangers Hockey fan back then, you had it made.  Only your baseball allegiances prevented you from winning a triple crown in any given calendar year.

The Mara family has been a superior force in this town since day one, and remain so today.   Meanwhile, Tex's Rangers suffered mightily through many seasons since 1940, yet maintained about as loyal a base that existed anywhere in the known world through the present.

The years are fleeting though.

The Yankees and Football Giants both fell into decline and disrepair.  The Yankees were ultimately sold-off into corporate hands, while Wellington famously, or infamously fought with his brother over the Mara empire.

It was then that a younger generation of Mets led by Tom Seaver and Gil Hodges, and Jets piloted by Joe Namath, planted their flag upon unclaimed Queens County, and together disrupted the balance of power in 1969.

By then, Red Holzman's Knickerbockers had also finally matured into players capable and worthy of defending Manhattan by turning the NBA on its ear with a monumental Goliath inspired take down of the west coast Lakers dynasty.

As previously eluded though, time stands still for no one.  Change remains its only bedfellow.

  • The likes of Sunny Werblin deserve light mention for becoming influential players on the local scene.  Joan Payson certainly, and even George Steinbrenner became titans in their own right.

Territoriality speaking though, the Football Giants were first to annex New Jersey.  Land due east of New York City likewise became a viable base of operations when the ABA Nets and Islanders explored and settled Nassau County, Long Island.

Let history note, Julius Erving (Dr. J) was the first to conquer and plant a flag on Long Island's legacy with two championships, but the Nets were also the first to leave Nassau County behind.

It was Al Arbour's Islanders who came to dominate Long Island and form its first and only dynasty.   Of the 18 million modern day denizens within the greater New York metropolis, 3 million of them basked in the glory of Al Arbour's realm.

As head coach of the New York Islanders, he guided them to 4 straight Stanley Cup championships, and led them to a fifth straight appearance against the Edmonton Oilers.  It was then the NHL torch was passed on to Wayne Gretzky and hockey's next dynasty.

Between the years 1973 and 1994, the Islanders nevertheless remained one of the more competitive teams in all of hockey.  Even people in far way Vancouver, Canada, came to know exactly where Uniondale was.

As a coach, he retired with the second most victories in NHL history.  He demanded efforts players would not have otherwise expected of themselves, then demanded more.  And because of the respect he garnered, Al Arbour got it.

Hell, he turned damn near the whole lot of them into Hall of Famers.

He won three Stanley Cups over a 14-year playing career as a defenseman.

For all his efforts and contributions to hockey, Al Arbour himself was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.

Whether a fan of theirs or not, there was no escaping the New York Islanders dominated the Empire State's sports scene between 1980 and 1984 all by themselves.  For those seasons, the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Rangers, and even the newly transplanted Devils all played in the shadows of Long Island's 4 Stanley Cups and 5 straight conference championships.

Guys like Lou Lamoriello and Joe Torre came along to challenge Al Arbour's achievements, but ultimately fell a little short - I think.  Fact is, the Isles dominated their sport like no other local had since the New York Yankees won 5 straight championships back during Happy Days.

Long Island was indeed Al Arbour's empire, and Uniondale his Rome.

He passed away on Friday at age 82.

In the long, winding, ever-changing narrative of New York sports, Al Arbour shall forever remain an Empire State titan.

A Rangers fan, whom after Ron Greschner's playoff goal in 1979, spent his ensuing teenage years watching the Islanders repeatedly destroy the Rangers throughout those old Patrick Division showdowns.

Al Arbour's Islanders were the best.  For a generation, he defined Long Island.

Rest well.

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