When I think of Clark Gillies, it is not necessarily about what he did on the hockey rink, which was significant enough to earn him a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but about the great company he was and the way he made people feel.
“You know what? My wife has been crying all day. It’s not possible. It really isn’t. I’m dumbfounded by it.”
When I envision Clark Gillies, images of No. 9 driving the net from the left side or throwing down with Terry O’Reilly don’t flash across my mind’s eye. What do, instead, are flashbacks of Gillies’ animated smile and raucous good-time laughter from across the table at a local watering hole.
“I always thought of Clark as the guy you’d like to have live next door,” a stunned Eddie Westfall said by phone. “If you had kids growing up, he’d be the perfect neighbor because, at heart, he was just a big kid himself.
“I’m telling you, I can’t get my arms around it.”
Yes, sadly, we are talking about Clark Gillies in the past tense, gone at age 67 on Friday in a body blow thrown pretty much from nowhere to those who knew him, those who knew him from afar, those who benefited from his largesse, the Islanders organization and Long Island itself.
“That expression, the good die young? That’s Clark,” said Nystrom, who could only speak in short sentences before needing to compose himself. “There will be thousands mourning this man.”
I’m surely one of them.
It was completely different when I started my career covering the Islanders 45 seasons ago. Most of the players and I were about the same age. We might even have been in the same tax bracket. Writers traveled with the team they covered, they took the team bus to and from games. We socialized. I’ve told this before, but on the road, the first question in the postgame locker room was most often, “Where are we going [to drink]?” At home, it was straight to Dr. Generosity’s — Dr. G’s — after the game. On Saturdays, wives and significant others were part of the mix.
So there were Clark and Pam Gillies, Bob and Janice Bourne, Bob and Michelle Nystrom, Dave and Brenda Lewis, Lorne and Cathye Henning, Westfall, Billy Harris, Gerry Hart. With Larry and Janis Brooks and Pat and JoEllen Calabria, he the correspondent for Newsday. The good times rolled on and off the ice in the pre-dynasty era. That is how I got my start.
You socialized, you formed friendships that, in some cases, have endured for decades, but there was always the understanding that what happened away from the rink would never influence your objectivity. Ask any of those guys if they thought they caught a break in The Post.
There was, in fact, the time that Bourne, to whom I was probably closer than to anyone else on the team, told me he wasn’t going to talk to me after games for two weeks because he was upset over what I had been writing in the paper … not about him, but about Gillies. It was midway through 1979-80. The ban did not apply to Dr. G’s.
Gillies, of course, got a kick out of the whole thing. (Maybe he didn’t, but pretended he did; that’s what my wife always thought.) I think I never got better quotes from him while Bourne, a locker or two away, was boycotting me.
“The hockey was one thing, but Clark, he was just a good person,” said Nystrom. “He was in a different category as a player with everything he could do out there, but I’m telling you, he could have been an entertainer.
“He’d pull pranks, he just loved to make guys laugh. He loved to make people feel good. That was always him.”
Gillies, who played three years of minor league baseball in the Astros’ system while in his teens, made the Islanders out of training camp in 1974-75 as a 6-foot-3, 220-pound, 20-year-old after having been drafted fourth overall out of Regina of the WHL the previous June.
“We were in Peterborough for that camp, I’m in my room, and there’s a knock on the door,” Nystrom said. “I open the door, look up, and there’s this giant with a big afro standing there.
“I said, ‘Yeah? Who was this guy?’ I thought maybe he was in the wrong place. Guess what? We roomed together for eight years, Clarkie in the front of the TV watching his favorite shows. He kept a low profile at the start. Then he realized guys were laughing at his jokes.”
Gillies came from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. When Westfall saw him, a nickname was born.
“I’m the one who called him Jethro,” said the Islanders’ first captain, who had won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Bruins. “He always reminded me of that character on the ‘Beverly Hillbillies.’
“His first camp in ’74, he was a big guy in a lot of ways, but he was a gentle man. His first year, the team asked if I’d live with him, so we shared a place. Pam would come in from Moose Jaw to visit him — they were boyfriend-girlfriend then — and every time I would remind them, ‘Clark has his room, and Pam, you’ve got your own room.’ Of course, I’d close my door at 11:00. I didn’t hear anything!
“To this day when I see Pam, I call her ‘Roomie.’ ”
If this is not about the hockey, let it be said that while Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier are all candidates to be included among the best 25 players in NHL history, and while Bill Smith is in the conversation for the best five playoff goaltenders of all time, the four Cups, the 19 straight playoff series victories and the dynasty itself would not have been possible without Gillies and the sense of courage and empowerment he provided to his teammates through a series of bouts with O’Reilly that changed the course of hockey history.
“Clarkie never met a microphone he didn’t like,” said Westfall, who retired following the 1978-79 semifinal loss to the Rangers. “We were at a charity event some time back, he’s giving his speech, he says, ‘You know, we won four straight Stanley Cups, but if my captain had retired two years earlier, we’d have won six!
That was Clark, lionized by many of the current Islanders who have an appreciation for their heritage, properly called “bigger than life” by head coach Barry Trotz. That was Gillies, who filled a lifetime with family and friends while embracing Long Island and making all of it his own neighborhood.
We have lost, as Nystrom put it almost 50 years ago, “a giant.” There is a hole in the logo, a hole in the heart.
“His life was about doing good for people. He had a way,” said No. 23. “He was one of a kind. There will never be another Clark Gillies. Thousands and thousands are going to mourn him.”
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