When you think of the dynastic New York Islanders of the 1980s, you likely think of the scoring wizardry of Mike Bossy, the playmaking prowess of Bryan Trottier, the puck-rushing brilliance of Denis Potvin, even the stick-swinging crease curmudgeonry of Billy Smith.
But none of that dominance happens without Clark Gillies.
The Islanders announced Gillies died on Friday. He was 67. No cause of death was revealed.
The Islanders owned the NHL in the regular season in the mid-1970s, but had trouble closing the deal. Season after season, they would run roughshod over the competition, only to be pushed around and cast aside in the playoffs to provide another troubling and disappointing upset.
By 1979-80, the clock was running down on the Islanders’ potential. Playoff ineptitude hung over the club as it entered the post-season. A first-round dismissal of the Los Angeles Kings raised barely a pulse. Been there, done that.
The next opponent didn’t reassure fans that this would be their team’s year: the feared Boston Bruins, with their murderers’ row of pugilists in Stan Jonathan, Al Secord, Mike Milbury, John Wensink and, the biggest bruiser of them all, Terry O’Reilly. Few teams got past the Big, Bad Bruins in those days.
This is where we come back to Clark Gillies.
Statement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the passing of Hockey Hall of Fame member Clark Gillies. pic.twitter.com/K7PbmRiv56
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 22, 2022
At six-foot-three, 215 pounds, he was a bear to contend with. His fights against Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Ed "Boxcar" Hospodar are legendary, but his offence was absolutely essential to the success of the Islanders.
In Game 1 against the Bruins, a close, tense affair in the tight, raucous confines of the Boston Garden, he brought that characteristic clutch scoring ability -- over his career, he scored an amazing 54 game-winning goals -- finding the back of the net at 1:02 of overtime to give the Islanders a 2-1 win and a stunning 1-0 series lead.
Back at a feverish Garden the next night, the Bruins retaliated, O’Reilly dropping the gloves with Gillies just 2:46 into the game. Gillies stood up but lost to the furious fists of O’Reilly. Unbowed, Gillies answered the bell again with O’Reilly before the end of that period; Gillies decisively knocked down the previously unbloodied O’Reilly, in his own building. The tide was turning.
Gillies and O’Reilly fought twice more in Game 3 back on Long Island, culminating with Gillies demolishing O’Reilly. The Islanders had gone into the Bruins’ house and beaten them every which way they could be beaten, stood up for themselves in their own building and rode that to a 4-1 series win.
The message was loud and clear from the burly winger affectionately known as Jethro: The Islanders were not going to be denied. They went on to a record 19 straight playoff series wins and four Stanley Cups.
Although Gillies’ fists were instrumental in clearing space for Trio Grande linemates Bossy and Trottier, it would be unfair to remember him for his fighting. In fact, he never exceeded 100 penalty minutes in a season during an era when that was expected of your biggest guy.
“It was perfectly clear that I could fight, but I always made it clear that my first job was to play good, tough hockey,” he told Eric Justic in 2006 in a story for MiLB.com. “Did I like fighting? Not particularly. But I was absolutely willing to do it as part of my job description. Even to this day, I don't talk about fighting too much. People always want to know, 'How was that thing with O'Reilly? You beat the (crap) out of him.' They forget O'Reilly hit me, too.”
Gillies could flat-out play, the prototypical power forward. Stats are secondary to the character and comfort he brought to the dominant Islanders (and two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres), but they are significant enough that they are worth exploring: In 958 NHL games over a 14-year career, he scored 319 goals -- including 92 power-play goals -- and added 378 assists for 697 points.
He topped 30 goals in six seasons, even threatening 40, reaching 38 in 1981-82, and recorded 91 points in 1978-79. That’s why he’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 147 NHL playoff games, he had 47 goals and 47 assists for 94 points. Clutch.
Similarly, it would be unfair to remember him purely for his stats. He played baseball in the Houston Astros minor system at 16. He, along with Ken Morrow, John Tonelli, Denis Potvin and Butch Goring, started the NHL tradition of playoff beards.
He was a world-class prankster, a big man with a powerful sense of humour. Once asked where his native Moose Jaw, Sask., is, he responded, "Six feet from the moose's ass."
As he recounted for NHL.com, Gillies once fell for a team prank when all 20 of the Islanders signed a new pair of shoes he had been particularly proud of.
“I said, ‘I will beat the (crap) out of every one of you unless you give me a dollar apiece,’” Gillies told NHL.com. “’Those shoes cost $20 and every one of you needs to give me a dollar right now or I am going to start beating the crap out of each and every one of you … one at a time.’ In about five minutes, I had $20 in my hand and a pair of signed shoes to the 1980 Stanley Cup champions.
“They all looked at me, like, umm, here's your dollar. I had the beard going and must have had a real scowl on my face.”
But his teammates loved him. Many players of that era lived near the rink in the off-season -- which, for the Islanders, meant lots of summertime bonding on Long Island that included charity softball games. He and close friend Bob Bourne were the stars of that team.
"It's an old cliche that a team has to really pull for itself and pull for each other," Gillies told MiLB.com. "We played together forever and added a few guys in along the way, but for the most part, the team grew up together and were successful together and had a strong bond together, on and off the ice. It's hard to put that kind of chemistry together these days."
Gillies, who spent three years playing minor league baseball in Covington, Va., in the Houston Astros system before being drafted by the Islanders fourth overall in 1974, brought his trademark power to even those charity games.
“We played the Rangers at Shea Stadium and the Flyers at Veterans Stadium down there,” Gillies told NewYorkIslanders.com in 2017. “I do remember almost hitting a softball out of Shea down the left-field line. I almost hit it over the wall, I hit it to the base of the wall.”
All indications are that he was a kind, considerate and charitable man off the ice. He said that when the Islanders played softball against the Flyers, the players “got along great.” Punching Schultz one minute, drinking beers with him the next. And you don’t get a children’s park named after you in your hometown if you’re not a good guy.
— City of Moose Jaw (@CityofMooseJaw) January 22, 2022
After wearing the 'C' for two seasons, Gillies gave the captaincy to Potvin in 1979-80 because he felt more comfortable being part of the team rather than in the spotlight. He felt it was the right thing to do for the Islanders.
And, tellingly, occasionally his forgiveness extended to the ice as well. After the Islanders had eliminated the Bruins in 1980, the teams lined up for the traditional handshake. Bloodied, beaten, tired, the combatants shook sweaty hands. When Gillies and O’Reilly met up, they exchanged looks. Then, they hugged.
Gillies remained on Long Island after he retired, serving at one point as a business development manager at Proactive Wealth Consultants and playing dozens of charity softball games a year. He is survived by his wife, Pam, and daughters Jocelyn, Brooke and Brianna.