I’ve discovered over the last 20 hours or so that it’s hard to describe to outsiders exactly what Clark Gillies meant to the New York Islanders franchise and why his loss, in the context of so many dynasty greats, hits so hard. (Dan captured it magnificently and perfectly here, and you should read it whether you’re a longtime fan or someone just drifting by.)
We’d already lost The Architect and Al Arbour, but they were older and had long since left Long Island, so their loss was devastating but a little more distant and, frankly, more in the natural order of things.
Gillies was a beloved, vibrant legend, still enthusiastically around the team and supporting them — but a straight shooter, always — who moved to Long Island at age 20 and stayed forever. He is Long Island and Islanders royalty, but in the “one of us” rather than Looking Down From On High kind of way. I don’t think there was a single broadcaster or player over the years who didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Clark Gillies. He wasn’t just a legend commemorated in the rafters, he was a guy people ran into all the time. He didn’t mind sharing stories of The Old Days, but he did so with a shared sense of “can you believe this one?” rather than some washed up vet trying to convince you how great his high school quarterback days were. (But evidently he was damn good in that role too, and in baseball, and...)
To discuss your favorite dynastic Islander is to reflect something about you or how you like your hockey; but most of those players understandably went on to live their post-Islanders lives elsewhere with occasional visits back to the Coliseum. Gillies’ impact and daily connection with the franchise lasted, well, for the rest of his life — which turned out to be all 37 years since he won the 19th consecutive playoff series.
While other dynasty stars can feel a little distant to younger fans who weren’t alive for their run (and those fans are increasingly not young!), Gillies was the jovial and wise uncle who connected with every generation of fans. You want that guy around. You love having him around. It’s also not a bad thing for current players to be able to bend the ear of a guy who was both feared and respected by rivals.
And as a human, just seeing the joy he took in helping kids through his foundation put a spring in your step, no matter what routine real world drudgery you faced that day. Would that every person who received a bit of privilege and luck in their life turn it into such love and goodwill toward others. (And remember, he played in the days before a short playing career could financially secure the rest of your life.)
Clark Gillies also always seemed so full of life (last summer’s playoff celebrations and beer display at the Coliseum are fresh on the mind), so at least for me personally, his death came out of nowhere.
All of which is to say, I’m still processing and pretty bummed by this unexpected news, so I’m in no mood to recap in any detail tonight’s game, a 3-1 loss to the Maple Leafs, which followed the announcement of Gillies’ death after last night’s win over the Coyotes.
Leafs 3, Islanders 1
There was a part of me that hoped the team would come out and just blast the Leafs, with playoff energy, and win one for #9. Matt Martin’s check on the former captain on the other side got a satisfied crowd roar, and Son of Parise’s equalizer made it feel like it could still be a special night. The other part of me knows that they are humans, and a bunch of them are digesting a loss that rattles the organization, its fanbase, and the broader community.
Not that one necessarily connects with the other, but the Isles were sloppy tonight. An early shorthanded goal was erased by a late first-period, roof-raising effort from Zach Parise (finally rewarded for his efforts), whose dad played with Gillies on the Island. Then within that same minute, the Isles were too casual in the final seconds and gave up the game winner, which stood for the rest of the game.
The penalty kill was good, some of the lunchpail guys — the guys who would most identify with Gillies, you’d think — were on their game. There was a push in the third, but not good enough to overcome the first-period mistakes. The Isles can’t afford mulligans right now, but I’ll concede one after the loss of #9.
Here are the stat links for the game, followed by Barry Trotz’s post-game (“That’s a big loss for our family”...also discussion of Oliver Wahlstrom, who was a healthy scratch: “He’s gonna be a good pro but we need the consistency”) and then some tributes to Gillies:
Trotz Postgame Availability pic.twitter.com/auwXaEoWgN— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) January 23, 2022
When a dear, close in-law died at 43, the funeral director consoled our family and said words that stuck with me: “It’s always much harder when it doesn’t happen in order.” If you’re part of a big family or have lost a child or sibling before a parent, you know that all too well.
Clark Gillies was just 67 and he was the giant of the dynasty who took on everyone. As someone said (I forget in which tribute today), he was loyal and friendly but defended his team “with mama bear” ferocity.
This did not happen in order. How is this man, with his never-ending smile and mischievous humor, gone?
I think my favorite part of the first tribute below is Al Arbour chuckling that he knew Gillies would be imitating him in the dressing room after he gave the players a piece of his mind, and that was okay. The relationship of all these guys to one another was why it worked. Al Arbour was the tough-but-fair love father figure who genuinely cared and connected with his players. Gillies was the guy who loved the coach and could help get the buy-in of the rest of the team.
Hall of famer.— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) January 23, 2022
Always in our hearts, Clark Gillies. pic.twitter.com/NLtjiQkiDV
Shannon Hogan is all of us, I think:
Rest In Peace to our forever #9 pic.twitter.com/sDTFEKGWqA— Isles on MSG+ (@IslesMSGN) January 22, 2022
The Islanders have a couple of days before their next game Tuesday, when the low-flying Flyers visit again. Gillies had a few battles against them, too.