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Clark Gillies: Great man for the Islanders, great man for Long Island

From the moment he arrived as a 20-year-old from little Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Clark Gillies considered Long Island a great place. So much so that 40 years later, when the islanders honored him, he pointed out that he had lost his Canadian accent.

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

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

He will forever be remembered for raising the Cup and raising more than $ 1 million for the pediatric wing of Huntington Hospital. He will be honored as a strong and tough competitor and a gentle and ingenious man off the ice. As his longtime friend Jim Johnson put it: “He was like a classic M&M: Hard on the outside, completely porridge and sweet on the inside.”

The man’s sensitive side was never shown as much as during a stay in Toronto 20 years ago. Gillies and his family traveled to Moose Jaw to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday. He received an urgent message on his cell, quickly called back and immediately broke down in tears.

His family thought something had happened to the elderly Mrs. Gillies. It turned out he was crying with joy at being inducted into the Hall of Fame after falling short twice.

The man known as “Jethro” because of his resemblance to the laced-up TV character on “The Beverly Hillbillies” always credited his wife, Pam, for having decided to take root on Long Island. They raised their three daughters here. Gillies got to know all the towns and villages by playing in 30 to 40 charity softball matches in Nassau and Suffolk in the summer.

“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 good exercise. And it was like hockey. You played a game, then you got a beer.”

No cause of death was immediately disclosed, reflecting Gillies’ belief in never complaining about problems. Johnson, a former Islanders director and now CEO of the Pat LaFontaines Companions in Courage Foundation, said few people knew Gillies had prostate cancer a few years ago and that his stomach was perforated during surgery, forcing him to carry a urinary catheter for the rest. of his life.

His charitable heart helped prolong his life. The diagnosis of prostate cancer came out of a routine physical request by Huntington Hospital after he promised to raise $ 1 million (apparently hospitals want to ensure the health of large donors).

Gillies went ahead with her treatment and her fundraising. When he heard about the death of a young local girl named Briana Titcomb, he got the Clark Gillies Foundation to team up with the LaFontaine Foundation to establish an electronic playroom in the pediatric wing and dedicate it to Briana’s memory.

“It’s an incredible story,” Johnson said. “It affects every single child who goes to Huntington Hospital to this day. It’s the value of having such guys in our community. Even if you only met Clark Gillies once, he made you feel like you had been a friend for life. “

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

In Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semifinals against defending champion Flyers, with the Islanders in command, Philadelphia strongman Dave Schultz – the NHL’s de facto heavyweight champion – sought to send a message. He took a fight with the young left wing. Gillies beat him.

Former judge Kerry Fraser tweeted about Gillies Friday night: “A big teddy bear who protected his cubs with a mother bear revenge. Never really liked to fight, but a man he ever could.”

Fighting was a bigger part of the sport in the 1970s and 80s than it is now. Sometimes a team had to protect its identity and its stars. Maybe Gillies could have scored more than his 319 goals if the Islanders had needed it, but sometimes he thought he served the team better by knocking people out and making room for linemates Trottier and Mike Bossy.

At Gillies’ Hall of Fame inauguration ceremony in 2002, Hall of Fame coach Al Arbor said of his former characteristic power forward: “He commanded respect the moment 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 toughness. He had six seasons with 30 goals, including a career high of 38 in 1981-82.

He was a natural athlete who played professional baseball in the Houston Astros’ chain. Pat Gillick, then Astros’ scouting director and on his way to becoming Baseball Hall of Fame director, signed him to a $ 5,000 bonus. The boy considered it a good summer job, but figured he could not improve unless he gave up hockey. That was out of the question.

Later in life, Gillies became known as a long-range scratch golfer. He played in Celebrity Tour events and was proud to have won the club championship at Huntington Crescent. He died prematurely to realize his one unfulfilled athletic dream: to play at Augusta National. Johnson said LaFontaine had set it up for later in the year.

No matter how much he achieved, “Jethro” never took himself or his situation too seriously. When people inevitably asked him where Moose Jaw is, he quickly replied, “About six feet from the moose. [backside]. “

When several islanders were on Team Canada during the cup tournament, star players from other NHL teams asked if Billy Smith was always as horrible as he looked during national team training. Gillies replied, “No, he’s usually worse than this.”

After the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup, Gillies shuffled the sensitivity by filling the bowl on top of the trophy with Ken-L Ration and letting his German shepherd, Hombre, eat out of it. When asked if it was really appropriate, Gillies said, “Why not? He’s a good dog.”

Once, after Arbor left the locker room after delivering a basso profundo tongue-lashing for the Islanders, who only recorded one hit over an entire period, one of the players said, “OK, who’s the idiot who got one hit? ? ” Gillies later insisted he was not the one saying it, but he appreciated it.

Last season, he appeared on the Nassau Coliseum screen to celebrate the Islanders’ progress to within a victory of the cup final. The camera saw him pour a beer and smash the can on top of his head.

So he was never a thing-was-better-in-my-day kind of alumni. Aside from his last two seasons playing for the Buffalo Sabers, Gillies was the biggest thread running through Islanders history. He was drafted after the franchise’s second season and remained a big presence all this year.

Ray Ferraro, an islander in the 1990s, posted a tweet on Friday calling Gillies “an amazing man … who always welcomes those of us who came to the island after their amazing team.” Current islander Matt Martin, who plays Gillies’ former left-wing position, said: “I think he’s the epitome of being a New York Islander. I remember when I first met him, I thought: “This is the one I want. to be when I grow up. ‘ “

Many Long Islanders have a fond memory of the first time they met Clark Gillies. He connected with them, he entertained them, he valued them and in the end he was one of them.

He rooted the islanders to the last. He was superstitious about which way he should go to the fighting from his home in Suffolk. He was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the UBS Arena. This was at home.

The longtime teammate Bob Nystrom knows the feeling. “However, I have spent much of my winter down in Florida,” Nystrom said. “I was trying to get him a seat down here, just to get down a little bit in the winter months. But that was not going to happen.”

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


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