(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Clark Gillies is one of the most legendary players to ever put on a New York Islanders sweater, and after four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, he wants to watch the team capture one more. In an interview with Stu Hackel, Gillies talks Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders dynasty, and reflects on his incredible career.
Scoring 304 goals and 663 points in his 872 games as an Islander – not to mention his 891 penalty minutes, Clark Gillies was a Hall of Fame power forward and core member of the Islanders dynasty teams of the 1980s. He added another 47 goals and 46 assists in the playoffs. His retired Number 9 hangs in the rafters at Nassau Coliseum. A former captain who was the heart and soul of the club, Gillies was honored earlier this season in a pregame ceremony as the club pays tribute to the heroes of the Coliseum. Here, he discusses playing on Long Island as the club prepares to move to Brooklyn next season.
Winning four straight Stanley Cups really cemented the team’s connection with Long Island. The team even had its victory parade on the streets around the Coliseum and some couldn’t understand that when you could have paraded in front of a million people in Manhattan. In one sense, the players, we just wanted to celebrate -- and we did for days and days and days. We didn’t care where we were. People said, “If you come to the City, you could go up Broadway, the Canyon of Heroes.” But that wasn’t us. We were Long Island. Al Arbour said, “We don’t care what people think. We’re just a bunch of country boys from out here on Long Island.”
It seemed one of the advantages you guys had was the intimacy of that building, with the fans right on top of the action. The fans could be really intimidating. Yeah, we’d load 16,500 in there and it was very, very loud. There were many nights it would send chills down your back. But having been there as a spectator, you’ve really got to work on your timing as far as going to the bathroom or getting a beer because you could miss half the game. That being said, when you finally get in your seat, and you’re watching a game and it’s exciting, there can’t be a whole lot of places better. It’s a great place to watch a game. Back in the early ‘70s, it was a state-of-the-art place. Now, the buildings are huge. I remember the first time I went to the new building in Philly and the Spectrum was right next to it. You could put two Spectrums inside that place. And I’ve been in Pittsburgh’s new building many times. I’ve gone to Mario Lemieux’s fantasy camp and a lot of the events take place in there. That place is gigantic.
When you think about the top moments at Nassau Coliseum, what games do you think of? Number One for me would be the first Cup. My first ever game in the Coliseum was pretty special, too, for me personally. But as a team, it’s that first Cup with Bobby (Nystrom) scoring the winning goal. The place went bonkers. That whole playoff run was a wild six weeks. The Coliseum was on fire. A couple of others stand out, like when we won our 15th in a row to set the new record. I think (John) Tonelli scored against Colorado and some old teammates --he put the puck through Bob Lorimer’s legs and Chico’s (Resch) legs. That was a big thrill. Boss (Mike Bossy) scoring 50 in 50, that was pretty amazing. And that playoff game against Pittsburgh when we were going for our third Cup. We had beaten them 8-1 and 7-2 at the Coliseum the first two games, it was no contest. We figured we’d finish the sweep in Pittsburgh but they beat us twice. We come back to New York and we’re down 3-1 with five minutes to go and we’re looking at each other on the bench saying, “Jeez, is this how this story ends, losing to these guys?” Then Mike McEwan scored on a power play, then Tonelli scored on the puck that hopped over Randy Carlyle’s stick with very little time left to tie it. In overtime, Mike Bullard had Smitty (goalie Billy Smith) undressed and a wide-open net and he hit the goalpost. It could have been over right there. We’d all be kicking ourselves to this day if that had happened. Right after that, Tonelli and Nystrom got the puck and went down the ice and scored and we went on to win our third Cup. Just incredible. Can you imagine being a fan sitting up there watching that? That’s the thing: Everybody asks, ‘What does it take to win the Cup?’ Well, first you gotta be talented; you’ve got to be good enough – which we were – and then you’ve got to be healthy, which we were incredibly for four years. But one of the key ingredient is you’ve got to be really, really lucky. If you don’t get the breaks that go along with everything else, you’re going to lose. That was a bad break for them, they went on to lose and we went on to win two more Cups.
Earlier in your career, wasn’t there still a lot of pro-Rangers sentiment at Islanders home games? Oh, yeah. My first game against the Rangers at the Nassau Coliseum in 1975, they scored and I thought the roof was going to come off the place. I was sitting on the bench with Eddie Westfall and some of the other guys who had played there the first couple of years and I said, “What the hell was that? This is our building.” They go, “Every time we play the Rangers, these are people who can’t get tickets to the Garden so they come here.” I said, “Well, that’s got to change.” It didn’t take long, obviously. But that was an eye-opener for me. Even when the Rangers weren’t in the building, lots of Rangers fans came in and cheered for the other team instead of us. After a while, everyone was cheering for us.
As a complete player, you were a real fan favorite at home games. Well, there were a couple of guys who weren’t so hot on me. I remember the first game I played for Buffalo against the Islanders in 1986, I scored two goals. I had a really good game. Some guy yelled from the stands, “Gillies, if you played like that when you here, you’d still be here!” I thought that was pretty funny. I was on the bench laughing, thinking, “You’re probably right.”
Was there anything physical about the building that gave you an advantage? You played in Buffalo where someone would mess with the Zamboni gate and the puck would kick out in the slot? That was one of the assistant trainers. I knew it was happening. He didn’t do it all the time but especially late in games. The guy would sit by the door and he’d push his foot up just to get the crack to come out and the puck would kick right in front of the net. I said, “We shouldn’t be doing that,” and they said “We’ve been doing that forever. We’re not changing now.” At the Coliseum, there was one weak spot in our end along the boards where it was so uneven that every once in a while the puck would take a whacky bounce and end up in front of the net. But we couldn’t get blamed for that because it was in our end two of the three periods. I thought our ice was pretty good. But what was great about the Coliseum -- and one of the reasons we never got too banged up -- was because the boards had so much give to them. You could get hammered into those things and it was like getting hit up against the ropes in a boxing ring. We never suffered too many shoulder injuries during those four years. That was a real plus for us. When we were going for the fifth Cup, they had changed the boards and they became as hard as a rock, like at the Montreal Forum, where the boards and glass were like concrete. We suffered quite a few shoulder injuries that year. As healthy as we were for the four Cups, we were really banged up for the fifth one. Even if we were healthy, would we have beaten them? I don’t know. I think we would have had a better chance if two things hadn’t happened. First was the injuries. But as much as we had our backs up against the wall – and you can call it sour grapes if you want – they changed the playoff format that year to 2-3-2. Edmonton played hard and won the first game on the Island, 1-0. Kevin McClelland scored from the corner on the goal line when it hit Smitty’s pad. They didn’t show up for the second game and we beat them 6-1. But they only had to win one game on the road and then go home. We would have tried to do that, too, but they had three straight games at home. It was a horrible situation as far as I was concerned. I’m a big believer that the NHL offices were in Montreal at that time and someone there didn’t want us to tie the Canadiens record of five Cups in a row. They made that switch and kept it for one more year and then it went back to 2-2-1-1-1, the same as it always was. To this day, I think someone screwed us on that.
Things changed after not winning that fifth Cup, didn’t they? I swear to God, when we lost the fifth Cup, it took a lot out of me. It was like the air came right out of the balloon and there was like nothing more to play for. We put up a good fight the next couple of years but after a while it got to the point where, you know, losing really sucks. When all you do is win, losing is not an option. We just weren’t very good anymore. I wasn’t going to retire; the two biggest years of my contract were the last two years I played so I was going to stick it out. I’ll be the first one to admit it. I’ll never forget when I got traded to Buffalo in ’86 and I got the speech from Bill Torrey that we were going in another direction and you’re not going with us. I was like, “OK, Bill, whatever.” But he helped me get to Buffalo. He put me on waivers and asked where I wanted to go. I said I didn’t want to go too far. I wasn’t taking my family with me and I may just play out the last couple of years of my contract and call it a day. I said Buffalo would be good. I can’t play for the Rangers -- no way I wanted to play for them. I didn’t want to play in New Jersey and Hartford was an option, I guess. But I always had a warm spot in my heart for Scotty Bowman and he was coaching Buffalo at that time. I was with him for the Canada Cup in ’81 and the Challenge Cup in ’79. I had a certain amount of respect for the guy and so Bill called Scotty and said, “I’m putting Gillies on waivers and he’s there, can you take him?” Scotty said, “I’d love to have him.” So that worked out pretty well. As it turned out, I loved the place. I moved my wife Pam and our daughters up to Buffalo and played one more year. Then I took a year off and lived in Buffalo and if I had been able to find something to do up there, I’d probably still be there. It was a great place to play. Unfortunately, Scotty got fired three months into the season and they hired Craig Ramsay, and he got fired two months later and they hired Ted Sator. Now, Wilf Paiement got picked up from the Rangers not long after Buffalo picked me up and I had once asked him, “Wilf, how bad could Ted Sator be? It sounds like everyone who knows him wants to kill him.” He said, “If you ever have this guy as your head coach, you will want to kill the guy. It won’t take long.” So Craig gets fired and the next day I come into the room and hear the news from the trainer. I said, “That’s too bad. It wasn’t his fault.” We weren’t a very talented team. I asked him who they hired and he tells me, “Ted Sator.” I said, “Oh, no. When I tell Wilf, he’s going to faint.” So Wilf comes into the room and I told him about Rammer. He asked me who the new coach was. I told him “Ted Sator.” Well, it looked every ounce of blood drained from his face. He said, “Now you’re going to see what I’m talking about.” And sure enough, by the time I was done with Ted Sator, I just wanted to take him out in the alley and beat the tar out of him. But if I look back at what I could have done differently, I probably could have taken more of a leadership role up there with the younger players. Dave Andreychuk was a rookie at that time, Scott Arniel, Phil Housley, Mike Ramsey. Gil Perrault was still there, although he retired soon. Scotty got on him so badly, he said, “I don’t need this anymore.” But I kind of lost interest a little bit, unfortunately. Fun wise, I had a good time. Lindy Ruff and I became good friends, so did Ramsay and Arniel. The best part of the game is going to lunch with the guys after practice, anyway. The games just kind of get in the way (laughing).
The Islanders honored you on December 13 in a pre-game ceremony, but you actually skated with the team that morning, didn’t you? That was unbelievable. I had both my knees replaced over the last couple of years, the second one in October of 2013 and I hadn’t skated in about four years. When they had the night for me, I asked Anne Rinna, the Islanders community relations manager, to talk to Jack Capuano and see if it was OK to skate with the guys in the morning skate. It was an optional skate but some of the kids were out there, Anders Lee, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, some of the defenseman, and I had a chance to skate around and talk to them a little bit. Some of the new guys, Nick Leddy, I asked him how he was adjusting. He had spent some time in Chicago so it was a little difficult for him. I could kind of relate to what he was going through having been traded to Buffalo. Capuano was the best. He really welcomed me with open arms, invited me into the locker room and introduced me to some of the guys. And I didn’t really know Jack until that point, but he was great. I had an old sweatsuit from about seven years ago and the equipment manager Scott Boggs said, “Hold on” and he brought me new one. I didn’t skate very hard but I had a blast.
Now, you and the fans face the prospect of the team moving to Brooklyn. A new Coliseum seemed like a no-brainer. I don’t get too involved in politics, but in a bad economy it would have meant lots of jobs. This was a $3.5 billion dollar deal. It would have employed lots of people and created a huge tax revenue source for Nassau County. There were so many positives there. Sometimes I get a little blue in the face when I talk about it. There’s nothing we can do about it. You kinda just gotta suck it up and get on a train and go to Brooklyn. I met Jon Ledecky, one of the new owners, when they had the night for me. He’s a very enthusiastic guy. He said, “I want to get the alumni more involved with the team. Scott Malkin (the other new co-owner) and I want to have lunch with you and Mr. Nystrom.” That’s pretty positive. At least now the team is playing great and we’re going to have a good product to go and watch. My bucket list, the last thing on my hockey bucket list is to drink from the Stanley Cup one more time. I would love to have it out here. It would be OK in Brooklyn, too. But wouldn’t that be something if they won the Cup this year? I know it’s a little bit of a stretch, but they’re playing with the elite in the league now. Stranger things have happened. Can you imagine…we win and then move to Brooklyn? Oh there’d be a uprising! (laughing) If that happened, I think I’d put a group together to build the new Coliseum.