DIX HILLS, N.Y. — The sign revealed by Pamela Gillies shortly before noon ET on Saturday is forever a daily reminder to generations before, during and after her late husband, Clark Gillies, grew to be a giant on the ice and a gentle giant off it.
The renaming of the Dix Hills Ice Rink to the Clark Gillies Arena at Dix Hills Park honored the longtime resident of Greenlawn, New York, a rugged forward who used a menacing 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame to help the New York Islanders win the Stanley Cup for four straight seasons (1980-83). The Hockey Hall of Famer who died of cancer on Jan. 21 at the age of 67 was feted in a public ceremony attended by fans and numerous dignitaries, a testament to the amount of respect Gillies commanded throughout Long Island and the hockey community.
Other platitudes used include presence, humility and what Town of Huntington councilwoman Joan Cergol called “a gravitational pull and used it for so, so, so much good” during the dedication ceremony at center ice. The occasion was bittersweet yet proud, councilman Salvatore Ferro recalled a conversation with Pat LaFontaine, the Hall of Fame member who began his NHL career with the Islanders in 1984, calling the rink and Clark Gillies the heart of Long Island.
“Charismatic is the word I use the most,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “He just had a certain charisma about him. He really had the ability to make everybody in the room feel like they were his best friend. The number of people here today, former teammates, current players, fans, they’re all recognizing all the good he did for the community over the course of his life.”
Councilmembers Ferro and Cergol introduced a resolution to rename the rink, unanimously approved at a town board meeting on March 15. The transition was completed with the unveiling of the center ice logo and a ceremonial puck drop performed by Pamela Gillies and Islanders players.
Pamela’s late husband was more than a player who skated on “The Trio Grande,” to the left of Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy during the dynasty years. Despite being one of the toughest players of his time, Gillies never had 100 penalty minutes in a season; his NHL high was 99 in 1980-81. He started The Clark Gillies Foundation, a non-profit corporation developed to help children who are physically, developmentally or financially challenged that granted more than $3.5 million to the Clark Gillies Pediatric Unit at Huntington Hospital and the Clark Gillies Foundation Pediatric Emergency Unit.
“It was almost like you knew him your whole life. He was that kind of a giant of a personality,” LaFontaine said. “‘Clarkie’ was just larger than life and anybody who met him, they were there better for it. It’s a great example for all of us to try to live your life like Clark Gillies lived his. That’s the greatest compliment I could give him.”
Gillies’ legacy links generations and inspires others for the greater good, like Martin’s ongoing work with the Matt Martin Foundation that organizes year-round events that are fun and give fans an outlet to help give back.
“He loved Long Island,” Martin said. “He loved the community, loved the people on Long Island. A day like this kind of shows.”
The day also brought more tears to Bobby Nystrom, another dynasty member who reflected on a tough four months that saw the deaths of Gillies, Jean Potvin (March 15), Bossy (April 14) and Montreal Canadiens icon Guy LaFleur (April 22). Nystrom then allowed himself a smile minutes after the ceremony. Gillies’ favorite song was “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers and he sang it at each of his foundation events.
The last time Nystrom saw Gillies perform “The Gambler,” he was in the hospital, which drew another round of tears. Months later, Nystrom and dozens more flew from around the country to the heart of Long Island and paid homage to the heartbeat of the Islanders, a day when sorrow, reflection and celebration became one.
“He was a giver,” Nystrom said. “He never said no to anybody. He was just selfless. Just an incredible guy.”
Photo courtesy: New York Islanders/Dennis DaSilva