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Gillies learned work ethic in Minors03/21/2006 12:43 AM ET
By Eric Justic / Special to MLB.com
Hockey Hall of Famer Clark Gillies earned a reputation on the New York Islanders as a tough left wing who could score in front of the net and propel his team with his fists.
Gillies was the muscle and grit behind the Islanders' four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83. What the hockey world didn't know was that when Gillies played Minor League baseball in Covington, Va., he actually shed some tears, which was tantamount to weakness during the NHL's rough and tumble era of the 1970s and '80s.
"I didn't know what the hell I was doing at the time," Gillies recalled. "I would get homesick and cry every night because it was the first time I had been away from home. It was quite a change. I went from playing baseball with my buddies in Moose Jaw, Sask., to all of a sudden I'm a professional baseball player."
Gillies was only a kid who had never even been on an airplane until he arrived in Covington in 1970 for the first of three summers of baseball on the Houston Astros' affiliate in the rookie-level Appalachian League. He had just turned 16 and was the youngest player on the team, so it was understandable for him to miss his home and family. Likewise, his adjustment to the Minors was difficult as Gillies went from playing baseball a couple of times a week to working on his game every day.
"You could tell he hadn't played a lot of baseball," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays scout John McLaren, Gillies' roommate in Covington. "He was a little bit crude throwing the ball, but he was such a strong man. He had a lot of potential. Clark was so strong it was scary. There were times he hit balls he was like a man-child."
Gillies already was 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds -- he would grow into a 6-3, 225-pound NHL power forward -- when he was signed by Houston's assistant farm director, Pat Gillick. He won over Gillick during a one-day tryout. Not that Gillick was opposed to scouring Canada for hockey talent, as he signed future Islander Bob Bourne in 1972 and attempted to sign Wayne Gretzky.
The Astros had to rely on Gillies' potential as he struggled early in his professional baseball career. The catcher/outfielder/first baseman didn't hit much his first season in Covington, going 1-for-13 in five games -- his lone highlight was a pinch-hit single in his last at-bat. But Gillies had a solid attitude to build upon. Even then, he understood the meaning of commitment. His character helped him get better on the field and later served him well as Islanders' captain from 1977-79.
Gillies received more playing time and his batting average climbed from .239 over 35 games in 1971 to .256 over 46 games in 1972. Bourne, who hit .257 in his only Minor League season, gave him comfort as they knew each other from junior hockey. And while he never stopped missing home, Gillies loved playing in the Minors and learned to cope with being homesick.
Gillies enjoyed seeing how the farm system operated and how the coaches concentrated on the fundamentals. Fond memories include seeing a young J.R. Richard hurl bullets in Spring Training and the camaraderie of being on a team. He enjoyed living with his teammates and looked forward to the bus trips, partly because it was nice to get away from Covington, which was home to an odiferous pulp mill. The Minors also groomed him for the NHL.
"I think what I got out of it was a sense of discipline, having to go to work every day and really work every game," Gillies said.
Gillies could have pursued baseball but chose not to. He complied with the Astros' earlier request to give up football out of fear he would get injured, but he refused to give up hockey. Of course, the Houston organization didn't realize there was probably a better chance of injury in hockey, especially given Gillies' style of play.
The Islanders knew Gillies could dominate physically when they tabbed him with the fourth overall selection in the 1974 NHL draft. Bourne was taken in the third round by the Kansas City Scouts and traded to the Islanders over the summer.
"When we got on the Islanders together, I said, 'I guess I'm not going to be able to shake you,'" Gillies said. "We're going to be together forever. To this day, we're still the best of friends."
Bonds like that were the foundation of the Islanders' success. Over the next few years, New York put together a nucleus that remained together for most of its dynasty. Sixteen Islanders played on all four Stanley Cup champions. Gillies was the fifth player and seventh member of the organization inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and repeatedly has called the Islanders of the 1980s the best team ever assembled.
"It's an old cliche that a team has to really pull for itself and pull for each other," Gillies said. "We played together forever and added a few guys in along the way, but for the most part, the team grew up together and were successful together and had a strong bond together, on and off the ice. It's hard to put that kind of chemistry together these days."
It was a collection of different personalities headed by a coach in Al Arbour -- another Hall of Famer -- who understood his players. Billy Smith was the feisty goaltender. Denis Potvin was the businessman-like captain. Gillies was a gentle giant off the ice, a happy-go-lucky jokester, while linemates Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy were devious pranksters.
"On the road, they would break into guy's rooms and put their clothes in the bathroom and then they would always deny it," Gillies said of Trottier and Bossy. "But we clicked instantly from the first time we played together. They needed someone like me to go out there when things got a little hairy. They could have the confidence knowing that I wasn't going to let anything happen to them. When you can go out on the ice with that comfort zone, it makes you do things that you might not be able to do."
The trio totaled 1,619 goals, with Gillies accounting for 366 (47 in the playoffs). Gillies, who was nicknamed "Jethro" for his likeness to the Jethro Bodine character on The Beverly Hillbillies, provided much of the dirty work in the corners of the rink and took the hacks while screening goaltenders. He was more than willing to drop his gloves after a teammate received a cheap shot, participating in memorable bouts with Ed "Boxcar" Hospodar of the New York Rangers and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers.
During that time, the Stanley Cups were celebrated with toothless grins, champagne-soaked beards and more than a few stitches. The Islanders were eliminated from the playoffs in 1978 and 1979 because they showed they could be intimidated, but Gillies and Bobby Nystrom were determined not to let that happen again.
It was Gillies' three fights with Terry O'Reilly of the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the 1980 Stanley Cup quarterfinals that helped catapult the Isles to their first championship. Gillies bludgeoned O'Reilly so badly that his face resembled a road map. But that was an aspect of the game that Gillies did not enjoy.
"It was perfectly clear that I could fight, but I always make it clear that my first job was to play good, tough hockey," he said. "Did I like fighting? Not particularly. But I was absolutely willing to do it as part of my job description. Even to this day, I don't talk about fighting too much. People always want to know, 'How was that thing with O'Reilly? You beat the (crap) out of him.' They forget O'Reilly hit me, too."
Proof of how much fighting bothered him was Gillies vomiting between periods of that game. But he regularly gave himself up for the sake of the team. He handed over the captaincy in 1979 to Potvin because he wanted to be a part of the team rather than its centerpiece. When the Islanders needed a hit or an emotional spark, Gillies often supplied it.
"I used to always think in my mind that I would never want to mess with Clark Gillies, and next thing you know, he's out there on the ice, squaring off against Dave Schultz," McLaren said.
The roles of the Islanders were clearly defined. Bossy was the flashy scorer, Potvin the rock-solid defender and Smith the money goaltender. But Gillies was very much the Islanders' soul. He gave his blood when he dropped his gloves, his sweat on every shift and some tears along the way.
After 14 hard-fought seasons in the NHL, Gillies retired unceremoniously in 1988 with the Buffalo Sabres. He remains close to the Islanders franchise and his No. 9 was retired by the team in December 1996. Today, the 51-year-old lives on Long Island with his wife and three daughters, works as a senior investment adviser for Raymond James and heads a foundation that helps children.
The final chapter to his NHL career was written in 2002. Gillies was traveling with his family to Moose Jaw to celebrate his mother's 80th birthday. During a stopover in Toronto, he received an emergency message. It turned out to be a representative of the Hockey Hall of Fame, informing him of his induction.
"I couldn't control myself," Gillies said. "I started crying, not hysterically, but I had tears running down my eyes. My wife came over and asked me what was wrong. She thought I'd gotten bad news about my mom, but these were happy tears."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.