Former Islanders, from left, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom, Billy...

Former Islanders, from left, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin look on during a jersey retirement ceremony for teammate John Tonelli prior to a game against the Red Wings at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 21, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Bob Nystrom roomed with Clark Gillies and formed a tight bond that lasted well past their years together as Islanders teammates.

So after Gillies passed away on Friday at the age of 67, speaking about it wasn’t easy for Nystrom, but he wanted to make one point perfectly clear about his lifelong friend.

"It’s devastating," he said Saturday morning. "This guy was just the best person that you could ever, ever, ever meet or be friendly with or be a teammate of. He was an incredible guy.

"The one thing that I need you to just say is that he’s one of the greatest human beings that I have ever met," Nystrom said to conclude a telephone chat.

That encapsulated the sentiment of all of Gillies’ former teammates and other members of the Islanders’ family who spoke to Newsday.

Yes, he was a Hockey Hall of Famer, inducted in 2002, after compiling 319 goals and 378 assists in 14 seasons, the first 12 with the Islanders. Yes, he was a feared fighter with 1,025 penalty minutes. Yes, he was one of 16 Islanders to play for all four Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83 and had his No. 9 retired in 1996.

But what stood out to people who knew Gillies, or got to meet him for a fleeting moment, was just how nice he was. Just how caring he was. Just how charitable he was through his foundation and philanthropy. Just how great a team he and his wife, Pam, were together. And, mostly, just how quick he was to crack a smile or a bad joke.

Glenn "Chico" Resch said Gillies had 71 career fights in the NHL, "and was only mad in one of them."

"When you think about Clark, the words that pop into my head are ‘optimism,’ ‘caring,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘considerate,’ " Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said. "I’m going to miss that huge laugh that he had. I’m going to miss that bear hug I used to get, which he had for everybody. He was just so accessible and such a part of the history of the Islanders. He was always there for other people. This guy never asked for anything for himself."

Gillies was a big teddy bear, a two-sport star from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan — the 6-3, 210-pounder nicknamed "Jethro" also played minor league baseball in the Houston Astros’ organization — who became a true Long Islander.

"My feeling is that I’d rather think about it as we had incredible years with Clarkie and it was a gift, rather than think about it as a passing," Hall of Famer Denis Potvin said. "He was so good for all of us because of his personality and the sacrifices he made as a power forward. I don’t think there’s ever been anybody better.

"I’m just honored to have known him for so long and in such an intimate way. Sharing the Stanley Cups and everything else together. A lot of people are going to remember Clarkie off the ice, and they should. The charities. I always marveled at his golf game. He was a joy to be with. Whenever I saw him with people, they were loving being with him. He’s leaving quite a gift to all of us who had a wonderful opportunity to be with Clarkie for so long."

Butch Goring, like Nystrom and Potvin, played for all four Cup champions. As the MSG Networks television analyst for the Islanders, he and broadcast partners Brendan Burke and Shannon Hogan had to break the news of Gillies’ passing immediately after Friday night’s 4-0 win over the Coyotes at UBS Arena.

"You want to find the right words," said Goring, acknowledging that was the toughest moment in his broadcasting career. "You’re having an opportunity to express your feelings. That’s a difficult task. You’re talking about the passing of a very good friend and a former teammate."

What made it even more difficult was the suddenness of Gillies’ passing. A cause of death has not been announced, but those close to Gillies knew he had been having health issues.

However, Gillies was at his fun-loving best at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for UBS Arena on Nov. 19. The same could be said about the next night, before the first game at the team’s new home, as he took the ice with the other Islanders who have had their numbers retired.


"It wasn’t all that long ago that we opened up the building and he’s bigger than life himself and he’s just his jovial self," said Goring, who roomed with Gillies when he was first traded to the Islanders in 1980. "We’re in touch with the family and knew what direction everything was going. It’s still just a huge shock that something like this can happen so quickly."

"I saw him there," Potvin said of the UBS Arena ribbon-cutting ceremony. "I traveled with him. We did a card show together. We spent a lot of time. We had one of those days where we were sitting around the airport for a couple of hours. He was a great friend."

Nystrom was starting his second full NHL season when Gillies joined the Islanders in 1974 after being drafted fourth overall. Nystrom said Gillies had the same personality at age 20 that he did later in life.

"I can’t say that he was ever shy," Nystrom said. "I remember the first day I saw him. He came knocking on my door in Peterborough, Ontario, where we were training. He had a big bushy head of hair. He looked like a giant. He was the same from the start to the day he died. That’s the way he was."

Patrick Flatley joined the Islanders at midseason in 1984; the team’s run of four straight Cups soon would be broken by the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final. Flatley wound up playing 13 seasons for the Islanders and is a member of the team’s Hall of Fame. But he said he might not have had the same career were it not for Gillies.

Flatley said he had an awful first practice with the Islanders.

"I was very nervous and he just took me home and we stopped for a beer and he just made me feel so confident," Flatley said. "He just recognized people who needed help and encouragement and he did it. Who knows what Day 2 would have been like if he hadn’t taken me out? I would have been not sleeping and thinking I was not good enough. That really stuck out in my mind when I was thinking about him yesterday."

Flatley said he also learned by watching Gillies handle a Flyers player who was cursing him out during a game.

"A guy on Philadelphia was yapping," Flatley said. "So Clark just punched him right in the nose, knocked the guy down. Then he says to the guy, ‘It’s hard to fight when you’re talking.’ Honest to God, I don’t think I spoke the rest of my career. The fear of somebody punching me in the nose."

Gillies spent his final two NHL seasons with the Sabres. Flatley said there was a simple message before those games with Buffalo.

"For those on our team who may not have known him, we basically just said before the game, ‘Do not wake Clark,’ " Flatley said. " ‘Just skate up and down next to him. Don’t bug him. Don’t get him ticked off.’ Basically, that was how we prepared for the game. Just don’t do anything stupid to make him mad."

While with the Sabres, Gillies developed a strong friendship with Lindy Ruff, now the Devils’ coach. Ruff sought out radio analyst Resch before the Devils’ game on Saturday to give him a hug.

And to share a funny story about Gillies.

"I get a call from Clarkie,’ " Resch said Ruff told him. "He says, ‘Lindy, you’ve got to get over here.’ He said, ‘There’s a bat in the house and I’m not sure I can get rid of it.’ So Lindy drives over. Lindy walks in and Clarkie and Pam, they love to snowmobile and be outdoors, he’s got his snowmobile outfit on with his snowmobile helmet and a tennis racket. The big, tough Clark Gillies taking on this bat."

Resch said some of his favorite moments with Gillies came at alumni gatherings or other events in which Gillies usually would be the last to take the microphone. He was just a natural entertainer. Resch said Gillies would do everything from tell hilarious stories to sing. Bobby Darin was a particular favorite of Gillies.

"Unfortunately, time is slipping by and having gone through this with my dad’s passing, which was rather sudden as well," said Artie Torrey, the son of the late Islanders Hall of Fame general manager Bill Torrey, who drafted Gillies. "There never would have been enough time for Clarkie to say goodbye to all the friends that he’s made. For those of us left behind, it’s really hard."

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