Clark Gillies: Big Man for Islanders, Big Man for Long Island

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As soon as he arrived at the age of 20 from little Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Clark Gillies saw Long Island as a great place. So much so that, 40 years later, as the islanders honored him, he pointed out that he had lost his Canadian accent.

“I rarely say ‘eh’,” he said at the time. “It really is home.”

Generations of its fellow citizens are certain that Long Island is all the more wonderful that Gillies was a part of it. They were shocked and saddened Friday night by the passing of the 67-year-old, whose legacy includes a Hockey Hall of Fame plaque, a retired jersey in the rafters, four Stanley Cup rings and thousands of “thank you” for his gifts of friendship and humanitarianism.

He will always be remembered for lifting the cup and raising over $1 million for the pediatric wing of Huntington Hospital. He will be revered as a strong, fierce competitor and a gentle, likeable man off the ice. As his longtime friend Jim Johnson said, “He was like a classic M&M: hard on the outside, gooey and soft on the inside.”

Never was the man’s sensitive side on full display as during a stopover in Toronto 20 years ago. Gillies and her family were traveling to Moose Jaw to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday. He received an urgent message on his mobile, quickly called back and immediately burst into tears.

Her family believed something had happened to the eldest Mrs Gillies. It turns out he was crying with joy at being elected to the Hall of Fame after failing twice.

The man known as “Jethro” because of his resemblance to the endearing TV character on “The Beverly Hillbillies” has always credited his wife, Pam, with deciding to put down roots on Long Island. They raised their three daughters there. Gillies got to know all the towns and villages playing in 30-40 charity softball games in Nassau and Suffolk during the summers.

“We really helped a lot of communities and they really appreciated it,” he said years later. “I know we had a lot of fun. It was pretty decent exercise. And it was kind of like hockey. You played a game, then you had a beer.”

No cause of death was immediately made public, which reflected Gillies’ belief in never complaining about trouble. Johnson, a former Islanders executive and now executive director of Pat LaFontaine’s Companions in Courage Foundation, said few people knew Gillies had prostate cancer a few years ago and his stomach was punctured during the operation, requiring him to wear a urinary catheter for the rest. of his life.

Her charitable heart helped prolong her life. The diagnosis of prostate cancer came out of a routine medical examination requested by Huntington Hospital after it pledged to raise $1 million (apparently hospitals want to insure the health of big donors).

Gillies continued his treatment and fundraising. When he heard of the death of a young local girl named Briana Titcomb, he asked the Clark Gillies Foundation to partner with the LaFontaine Foundation to create an electronic playroom in the pediatric wing and dedicate it in memory of Briana.

“It’s an amazing story,” Johnson said. “It impacts all the kids that go to Huntington Hospital to this day. It’s the value of having guys like that in our community. Even if you’ve only met Clark Gillies once , he made you feel like a friend for life.”

On the ice, Gillies had been a cornerstone in the founding of the Islanders. He was the fourth overall pick in 1974, the same draft that brought in Bryan Trottier. As a rookie in the 1975 playoffs, Gillies helped cement the deep bond between the team and its fans, a bond that still exists. He scored the game-clinching goal in the franchise’s first playoff game, a 3-2 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, setting the tone for an unlikely playoff run that put the Islanders on the hockey map and ensured that they would be taken seriously.

In Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semi-finals against the defending champion Flyers, with the Islanders in charge, Philadelphia strongman Dave Schultz – the NHL’s de facto heavyweight champion – looked to send a message. He battled with the young left winger. Gillies beat him.

Former umpire Kerry Fraser tweeted of Gillies on Friday night: “Big teddy bear who protected her cubs with mama bear vengeance. Never really liked fighting, but man could- he never.”

Fighting was a bigger part of the sport in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. Sometimes a team had to protect its identity and its stars. Maybe Gillies could have scored more than his 319 goals if the Islanders needed it, but he sometimes thought he served the team better by knocking people down and making room for teammates Trottier and Mike Bossy.

At Gillies’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002, Hall of Fame coach Al Arbor said of his former power forward par excellence: “He commanded respect as soon as “He walked into the locker room. And he commanded respect every minute he was on the ice.”

Gillies commanded respect for his talent as well as his tenacity. He had six 30-goal seasons, including a career-high 38 in 1981-82.

He was a natural athlete who played professional baseball in the Houston Astros chain. Then-Astros scouting director Pat Gillick, on his way to becoming a Baseball Hall of Fame executive, signed him to a $5,000 bonus. The kid considered it a good summer job, but thought he couldn’t improve unless he gave up hockey. It was out of the question.

Later in life, Gillies became known as a lifelong scratch golfer. He took part in Celebrity Tour events and was proud to have won the club championship at Huntington Crescent. He died too soon to fulfill his one unfulfilled athletic dream: to play at Augusta National. Johnson said LaFontaine implemented that later that year.

No matter how much he’s accomplished, “Jethro” has never taken himself or his situation too seriously. When people inevitably asked him where Moose Jaw was, he readily replied, “About six feet from the moose [backside].”

When several Islanders were part of Team Canada during the Cup race, star players from other NHL teams asked if Billy Smith was still as cantankerous as he looked in NHL practices. National team. Gillies replied, “No, he’s usually worse than that.”

After the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup, Gillies shook sensibilities by filling the bowl atop the trophy with Ken-L Ration and allowing his German Shepherd, Hombre, to eat from it. When asked if it was really appropriate, Gillies replied, “Why not? He’s a good dog.”

Once, after Arbor left the locker room after throwing a basso profundo lick at the Islanders registering a single hit over an entire period, one of the players said, “OK, who’s the idiot who has do it?” Gillies then insisted it wasn’t him who said it, but he appreciated it.

Last season, he was shown on the Nassau Coliseum screen celebrating the Islanders’ push to within a Cup Final victory. The camera spotted him draining a beer and smashing the can on top of his head.

So he was never a former student of the “things were better in my day” kind of way. Aside from his last two seasons as a player with the Buffalo Sabres, Gillies has been the biggest thread in Islanders history. He was drafted after the franchise’s second season and has remained a strong presence throughout that year.

Ray Ferraro, a 1990s Islander, tweeted Friday calling Gillies “an amazing man…always welcoming those of us who came to the island after their great teams.” Current Islander Matt Martin, who plays Gillies’ former position at left wing, said: “I think he epitomizes everything a New York Islander is. I remember when I got him. first met, I was like, ‘This is who I want to be when I grow up. “

Many Long Islanders have fond memories of the first time they met Clark Gillies. He connected with them, he entertained them, he enjoyed them, and ultimately, he was one of them.

He supported the Islanders until the end. He was superstitious about the route to take for the games from his Suffolk home. He was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. He was one of the first enthusiastic supporters of the UBS Arena. It was home.

Longtime teammate Bob Nystrom knows that feeling. “I spent a lot of my winter in Florida, though,” Nystrom said. “I was trying to convince him to find a place here, just to come over for a bit during the winter months. But that wasn’t going to happen.”

Clark Gillies was determined to be a Long Islander. And Long Island will be forever grateful.

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