Once an Islander, always an Islander. That explains why Clark Gillies, 60, with two replacement knees, went on the ice Saturday for the first time in three years to take one last morning skate with the team.
"He was a little disappointed when I told him he was a healthy scratch tonight," coach Jack Capuano said.
Gillies hid a smile when he said, "I didn't think I did anything wrong . . . "
Fact is, he was at Nassau Coliseum for everything he has done right: Being a Hall of Fame left wing, scoring big goals, providing muscle that made sure opponents knew the Islanders couldn't be pushed around and, for the past 40 years, being a loyal Long Islander.
Forty years after he arrived as a first-round draft pick from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he still is here. In a video tribute before the game Saturday night, linemate Mike Bossy called him "an immense physical presence on the ice."
Gillies has been just as much a respected presence on his adopted home turf. Put it this way: When he showed up as the last of four Islander Legends saluted in a Coliseum farewell series, he did not have to ask for directions.
"Actually, the drive over here this morning was interesting," he said. "I thought back to how many times I've been on that same road down the Northern State Parkway to the Meadowbrook to the Coliseum. I couldn't remember if the last game we won, I went down Post Avenue or Meadowbrook. I'm still a little superstitious."
It wasn't superstition, but rather talent and hard work that made him a fixture on a team that stunned the hockey world with a deep playoff run in 1975, his rookie season, and later won four Stanley Cups. As far as he is concerned, it was no coincidence that it happened here. He might not talk quite the way we do, but he has lost most of his Canadian accent. "I rarely say 'eh,' '' he said, adding, "This really is home."
Long Island is where he and his wife, Pam (who also is from Moose Jaw, but whose idea it was to put down roots in western Suffolk County), raised three daughters. It is where Gillies and teammates clinched three of their four Cups. It is where his German shepherd famously ate Ken-L-Ration from the most hallowed trophy in sports. ("I got all kinds of grief," he said.)
Gillies embodies the deep connection between the team and its environment, a link that is making this final season on the Island so poignant.
"I keep having this dream that when Ratner redoes the Coliseum and still owns the Barclays Center, he'll say, 'What the hell is the difference whether they play at Barclays or they play here? Let's move them back out here,' '' the Greenlawn resident said. "It's a stretch, but wouldn't it be kind of neat if that happened?"
Saturday was for reflecting on great memories of big and small events: Establishing the Islanders' backbone by punching out the NHL's reigning tough guy, Dave Schultz, in 1975 (Schultz has become a friend). Not seeing Bob Nystrom's first Cup-winning goal (Gillies was exhausted after a shift and was looking down). Playing for Al Arbour, who still believes that it was Gillies who, after the coach excoriated the Islanders for having made only one hit in the first period, said to his teammates, "Who's the [idiot] who had that one hit?"
Gillies swears it wasn't him.
The Hall of Famer, known as "Jethro" for the muscular character in "The Beverly Hillbillies," also remembers going all over the Island, playing 30 to 40 charity softball games per summer. "We really help- ed a lot of different communities and they appreciated it. I know we had a lot of fun. It was pretty decent exercise," he said. "And it was sort of like hockey. You played a game, then you had beer."
Aside from joking about Gillies being a healthy scratch, the current coach sees the man whose No. 9 is retired as royalty. So do his players. Anders Lee, who chatted with Gillies on the ice during the morning practice, said, "He's obviously a legend of the Isles, so to have him out there with us is pretty fun. He obviously knows a lot about the game, he's obviously been a winner, so you kind of pick his brain a little bit, but at the same time, he's trying to let us get ready for the game."
Gillies follows these Islanders religiously. He marvels at how Garth Snow was able to get Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins. He is an ardent fan, generally eschewing the suites to sit in the stands with his fellow residents. Once an Islander, or a Long Islander . . .
"I am," he said, "going to grow a playoff beard this year."