One of the many amazing aspects about the Islanders dynasty is that so many of its key players hit the ground running as NHLers. He may not have won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year like teammates Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy did, but Clark Gillies, who passed away yesterday at the age of 67, was every bit as ready for the pro game as they were from the moment he stepped into an NHL rink.
Off the ice, he immediately made his presence felt with this humor and easy-going attitude. Gillies was a favorite of both fans and reporters from his first training camp for his openness and ease in the spotlight.
On the flipside, a fight in his rookie year with one of the NHL’s pre-eminent boogie men of the era changed the perspective of what the Islanders were in just their third year of existence.
Clark Gillies was always an Islanders legend. And these early season highlights are a big reason why.
The Man from Moose Jaw
Gillies hailed from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the fourth-largest city in the province, and a longtime hub of transportation and military training sitting along the Moose Jaw River. The city is larger and more significant than outsiders might think, but for those of us who aren’t from there, it’s just an awesomely named town that produced one of the best players our hockey team has ever known.
Gillies leaned into Moose Jaw’s... uniqueness and made it his go-to ice breaker with reporters.
“I get asked just where Moose Jaw is,” Gillies joked. “It’s about six feet from a moose’s ass.” - The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner, 1983.
It’s a simple joke but a telling one. The man was a pioneer. Just as he was a “Power Forward” before anyone knew what that meant, Clark Gillies was telling “Dad Jokes,” before those were a thing, either.
Gillies’s sense of humor is as legendary as his play on the ice. He had an aura about him that made him approachable, and his innate ability to hold court and tell stories would keep you there to soak up the experience for as long as you could. As teammate and later assistant coach Lorne Henning told Greg Prato in Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders 1972-84:
“Clarkie was the ‘beat’ of the dressing room. He was a fun-loving guy and guys loved him, and loved to be around him. He had the toughness, but he was an easygoing fun guy, joking around. He made lots of guys laugh and relax.”
The Legend of Jethro
Gillies is known to even non-Islanders fans by his nickname of “Jethro.” The story behind him getting the name is pretty simple, but its perfection has led to it lasting in the collective memory as long or perhaps more so than its namesake has.
“Ed Westfall gave me the name because he came into my room once and saw me watching The Beverly Hillbillies and he said I looked like ‘Jethro.’ - The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner, 1983.
Gillies’s resemblance to actor Max Baer, Jr. is pretty close. At least as long as the burly winger was clean shaven. The Beverly Hillbillies went off the air in 1971, but Jethro Bodine and his family were still in the public consciousness when Islanders captain Westfall bestowed the nickname on his young teammate. It’s debatable now who is remembered by more people, the first Jethro or the second one.
Between Gillies and his teammate and fellow Moose Jaw-native, Glenn “Chico” Resch, the Islanders had half a prime time lineup of some great 70’s-inspired nicknames. I wonder if Mike Bossy and Bob Nystrom ever went to a Halloween party dressed as Starsky & Hutch.
Gillies didn’t always think he had what it took to make it to the NHL. He credited former junior coach and later interim Islanders coach Earl Ingarfield with giving him the “kick in the butt” that he needed to start to believe in himself and his abilities.
But hockey wasn’t Gillies’ only sport. He was also scouted as a baseball player alongside junior teammate and best friend Bob Bourne. Both signed a minor league contracts with the Houston Astros in the early 70’s and even played the same position - first base - on the same farm team.
“Clarkie was the power hitter and I was the singles guy,” said Bourne, who added with a wink. “He wasn’t a bad player... but I was better.” - The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner, 1983.
Gillies eventually focused on hockey, and we were all much better for it. But his love of baseball and other athletic competition wouldn’t go away totally. He was a mainstay on the Islanders’ charity softball teams in the early 80’s, playing games at Shea Stadium against teams representing the Rangers and Flyers, among other opponents. And he was part of the Islanders contingent that competed on ABC’s athletic Superstars show between 1976 and 1980.
An Immediate Hit
Gillies scored 25 goals and 22 assists in his rookie year, a very solid campaign for a 20-year-old. But the winger was quick to credit his coach for getting the best out of him that season, and setting him up for future success.
As he told Arthur Staple in the former Islanders beatwriter’s new book:
“I’ve got to give all the credit in the world to Al [Arbour]. He was a hard-nosed son of a bitch but he really knew how to keep us in line. He knew when to push what buttons to really get you going. He was pretty patient with me as a rookie. I made a lot of mistakes but I kept learning and learning and did my share from a rough-and-tough standpoint and ended up with 47 points. It was a real learning experience that first year.”
Gillies increased his goal total to 34 in his sophomore year, the first of six 30-goal campaigns he would have in a seven-year span. His career high in goals was 38, scored in 1981-82 at the age of 27.
Dropping the Hammer
Of course, one cannot talk about Clark Gillies without talking about that “rough-and-tough” stuff. His battles with heavyweights like Behn Wilson and Ed Hospodar were legendary. But the irony is that the quantity of the fights Gillies got into wasn’t nearly as high as some might think.
He finished his career with 697 penalty minutes, and his high for a season was 99 PIM in 1980-81. But Gillies wasn’t simply looking to fight. He once said:
“People want me to run around the ice hitting anything that moves. But that’s not me. If a teammate needs me, I’m there - and the guys know it and the opposition knows it.”
Friend and linemate Bryan Trottier echoes a common line about Jethro, telling Staple:
“He was a huge presence on the ice, but it took a lot to make him mad.”
When he did get mad, look out. And a single fight from Gillies’s rookie year set the tone for the Islanders as a franchise from that point on.
This tilt against Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, from May 8, 1975 in Game 5 of the NHL semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers lives on in Islanders infamy. Schultz put the “Bully” in “Broad Street Bullies” and was a constant unnerving presence on the ice for opponents.
Down 3-1 in the series, Gillies knew the Islanders needed a spark to come back and win some games. And when Schultz started taking liberties, the Islanders rookie said enough was enough.
The Islanders didn’t win the series, losing in seven games. But the beatdown of Schultz would not be forgotten. Don’t take my word for it. Take this excerpt from Dynasty:
HOWARD STERN PRODUCER GARY “BABA BOOEY” DELL’ABATE: “I always say the day everything changed for the Islanders was when Clark Gillies beat the living shit out of Dave Schultz. It was a “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead [moment]. I thought that changed the attitude of the Islanders. That day was as important as winning the Rangers series, and changing the perception of who the Islanders were and, ‘You were not going to fuck with us.’”
Watch that video again and remember: that dude is a rookie.
The Trio Grande
From the moment they were united as a line in training camp 1977, Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy were dynamite. Gillies was 23 at the time, and Bossy and Trottier were both just 21. That fact alone must have been TERRIFYING for opponents. The chemistry was instantaneous and continued until the mid-80’s, when Gillies’s time with the Islanders came to an end.
In his Hall of Fame speech, Gillies thanked his linemates specifically, and seemed more than anything to be happy joining them in the Hall.
But the admiration goes both ways. As great as all three were on their own, they all knew that they complimented each other perfectly, which led to even greater things for all of them. As Trottier told Greg Prato in Dynasty:
“I played three years of junior hockey against Clark Gillies. And I when went to the Islanders, here’s Clark Gillies, who is now my teammate. I’m like, ‘the hockey gods are smiling on me,’ because I don’t know if I could have a better guy that I want as a teammate. And then to play all those years with him on my left side, I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
We were all lucky to call Clark Gillies our own, from the moment he touched down on Long Island.
Athlete, scorer, fighter, leader, life of the party, legend.