Schwartz: Al Arbour Meant So Much To John Tonelli

13,917 fans are expected to pack the Nassau Coliseum on Friday night to see John Tonelli’s number 27 raised to the rafters but there certainly will be a couple of more that will want to be in attendance.

This will be the first retired number ceremony for the Islanders since legendary General Manager Bill Torrey and Head Coach Al Arbour both passed away.  When it comes to Arbour, he’ll want to have the best spot in the house to watch the ceremony whether it’s an empty seat, if there is one, or perhaps he’ll just stand behind the old Islanders bench which is now the visiting bench as a result of the Coliseum renovations.

Arbour and Tonelli shared a very special relationship during their time together with the Islanders, especially during the Stanley Cup Dynasty from 1980 to 1983 as well as a fifth straight trip to the Finals and an NHL record 19 straight playoff series wins.  Tonelli was at the Northwell Health Ice Center Friday morning to watch the Islanders’ morning skate, just hours before his number was to be retired followed by the Isles’ game against the Red Wings.

Near the end of the skate, Tonelli was made available to talk to the media and when the conversation turned to what Arbour meant to him, JT had trouble getting the words out.

“Al for me is…he was…an unbelievable leader, mentor…,” said Tonelli who will be come the 7th Islanders player to have his number retired to go along with banners that are in the rafters for Arbour and Torrey. 

Tonelli needed a moment to pull himself together and wipe the tears from his face before continuing his answer.

“I’m sorry about that…sorry,” said Tonelli.  “I get emotional when I talk about Al because he was that important to me.”

Tonelli began his professional career not playing for Arbour even though he was the Islanders’ second round pick (33rd overall) in 1977.  He was already playing professional hockey at the time for the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.   After the WHA folded in 1978, Tonelli joined the Islanders for the 1978-79 season, a campaign that ended with a heartbreaking loss to the Rangers in the semifinals.  

But one year later, Tonelli and the Islanders celebrated the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups and a big reason for the success was the way in which Arbour was able to manage the different personalities on the team.   He just said all of the right things and he was good to all of us and he got the best of everyone of us. 

Tonelli continued to hold back the tears as he described just how important Arbour was, not only to himself but to each player.

“He knew we were all different but he knew how to talk to us differently to get the best,” said Tonelli.

While Tonelli will always be known for the pass on May 24th, 1980 that set up Bobby Nystrom’s overtime goal against the Flyers in Game Six of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final that brought the first championship to Long Island, a signature moment that he shared with Arbour took place two seasons later. 

On April 13th, 1982, the Islanders were playing the Penguins in Game Five of the opening round of the playoffs at Nassau Coliseum.  Late in the third period, the Isles were trailing 3-1 and it looked like the Islanders’ Stanley Cup reign was going to end after two championships.

But that’s when Al and John delivered some magic.   

“Al called a timeout and changed goaltenders,” recalled Tonelli.  “It’s unbelievable because Al was not nervous or panicking one bit.  You look back and he’s not even excited but I could tell by him changing goaltenders bought us some time and gave us a fresh breath, another breath of air to breath to survive.”

What followed was a Mike McEwen power play goal at 14:33 of the third period and then Tonelli scored at 17:39 to tie the game and force overtime.  In OT, Tonelli scored the game winner at 6:19 (this time Nystrom had the assist) and the Islanders survived and advanced toward the third of four straight cups. 

Tonelli and Arbour shared an amazing relationship, something that was very easy for current Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz to see.

That’s because Tonelli gave Arbour everything he had.

“His determination, character in every situation and a champion,” said Trotz.  “He wasn’t the most skilled guy but you talk about the size of a man’s heart in terms of not only how it affects the game but how it’s contagious throughout the whole team.”

And Arbour’s style of coaching certainly meant the world to Tonelli and the rest of that great Islanders team. 

“I’ve had a few players that played under Al and talked to them and they all talk about how he was demanding but he was a little bit of a father figure that you didn’t want to disappoint,” said Trotz.  “He taught you the game correctly and he held you accountable to the game without making you feel small.”

Friday night is going to be another special night at the Coliseum and then a week from Saturday, there will be another ceremony when Butch Goring will have his number 91 retired.  But on Friday, John Tonelli is going to soak in every moment of watching number 27 join Denis Potvin (5), Clark Gillies (9), Bryan Trottier (19), Mike Bossy (22), Bobby Nystrom (23), and Billy Smith (31) in the rafters.

Somewhere in the building, Tonelli’s father figure, the great Al Arbour, will be smiling and cheering for one of the most important players of the Islanders dynasty. 

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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