At first, it seemed like just a simple PR move: a hockey franchise always in need of some positive press reaches to its glory days and brings back a legendary coach -- he of four straight Stanley Cup championships -- to "coach" one game. Generate some buzz around the team and sell a few tickets along the way. Tough to argue.
But let's face it, no one was really under the impression Al Arbour, now 75, would actively manage the game. Because of that, this lifelong Islander fan felt it was a nice gesture, for sure, but it seemed little more than a shrewd business maneuver mixed up with a heavy dose of sentimentality. The man hits a nice round number -- an unfathomable 1,500 coaching appearances -- and we all go home.
Interestingly, during all the pre-game interviews and press conferences, coach Arbour kept mentioning he hardly knew the players by name and wouldn't be doing much actual heavy lifting. I appreciated this honesty. No false front. No pretense.
Ted Nolan would be behind the bench, calling the shots, and Al would simply be a strong presence beside him. Greet the team before the game, read the lineup cards in the locker room, maybe a few pats on the back here and there with a couple rah-rahs sprinkled in.
Then the game. And what a game. The Islanders fall behind early. The starting goalie goes down (a now-recurring problem, by the way). Little Wade Dubielewicz comes in and holds the fort while the home team continues to work hard, grind it out, grab a few hard-earned chances.
Then a struggling Miro Satan scores his second goal of the game with two minutes left in the third period and the Islanders beat the Penguins, a longtime foe, 3-2. The sellout crowd is as loud as you'll hear it during any regular-season game and the Isles improve to an unexpected 7-4. A good win that harkened back to the old glory days.
In short, a perfect script.
My point? You got the sense, or at least I did, that squeaking out a comeback victory like this took every ounce of motivation ... every bit of extra help ... every extra fan in the stands. Bill Guerin said afterward that the team really wanted to win for the old-time coach and I believe him.
Then the postgame ceremony, which you knew was happening win or lose. And yes, I got a little choked up when Al Arbour's family came out, along with all the past and legendary Islanders (some of whom are already smartly on the payroll), to help hoist the new "1,500" banner to the rafters. Who wouldn't? But then I saw owner Charles Wang and it hit me.
Forget about the PR aspect. Forget about the tickets sold. This was a gift to all the die-hard Islander fans out there. To bring back all the players, fly in some 20 family members and host an evening like this, you had to doubt that the bottom line -- at least in the short term -- had much to do with it. Or it just didn't seem that important perhaps.
Beyond all the postgame hoopla, the photo-ops, the banner raising, and Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home" blaring in the background, somehow, for a moment, the team, the alumni, the coach (old and new) and the fans felt connected, like a huge extended family of sorts. And there I was, home on my couch, somehow feeling a part of it.
Too sappy? I'm sure.
But when a sports team like this is tied so tightly to your childhood, it's hard not to feel this way. And maybe it's perfectly OK to even get a little cheesey over it once in a while. It was a night for the fans. Not the critics. Not the outsiders. For us. The past and present together.
"It feels really great," Arbour said afterward, "but I didn't really do that much."
I think he did more than he realizes.