Inside the NHL
BOSTON — Among fonder memories for Kraken alternate captain Jordan Eberle during his four years with the New York Islanders was a chance to learn about franchise building from one of the best.
Clark Gillies was more than just a 6-foot-4, 210-pound power forward from 1974-88 who played all but two seasons for the Islanders. The Hockey Hall of Famer literally hoisted that fledgling 1970s franchise on his ample shoulders starting his rookie season and wound up leading it to 1980s glory with four consecutive championships.
And when Gillies died Jan. 21 at age 67, after a battle so brief with pancreatic cancer that most were unaware he was even sick, the depth of his Islanders contributions came pouring out in tributes from across the hockey universe.
Gillies was active in the team’s Core of the Four alumni group and a larger than life, jovial giant for Eberle and other present-day Islanders to connect with at team games, practices and events.
For the 31-year-old Eberle, who like Gillies was born in Saskatchewan and played junior hockey for the Regina Pats, the chance to meet with a local legend was special. And though Eberle’s return to Long Island, New York, on Wednesday to play the Islanders will be at UBS Arena — a new venue he hasn’t seen — memories of Gillies and the franchise he helped build won’t be far behind.
“For me, personally, even before I was in Long Island, coming from Saskatchewan and from the same junior franchise, I knew a lot of people that knew him,” said Eberle, who added he was “devastated” by word of his passing. “Obviously he was quite a bit older. But the man was just a good leader. And he was always very kind to me.”
Gillies was never a superstar, nor did he act like one. He hailed from the Saskatchewan town of Moose Jaw.
“I get asked just where Moose Jaw is,” Gillies often joked. “It’s about six feet from a moose’s (behind).”
But he did know how to lead.
When enforcer Dave Schultz and the Philadelphia Flyers were terrorizing hockey, it was a rookie Gillies who dropped his gloves and battered “The Hammer” as few had done before until Andre “Moose” Dupont jumped in to rescue his teammate. That happened during Game 5 of the 1975 NHL semifinals, which the Islanders trailed 3-0 before battling all the way back, only to lose a hard-fought Game 7 as Schultz and the Flyers went on to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
But for the Islanders, who had gone 12-60-6 in their expansion season only two years prior, it was a signal that they were on the rise. And were they ever, reaching three more semifinals before finally breaking through for the first of their four Cup victories in May 1980.
During that year’s quarterfinals against a Boston Bruins squad that nearly won it all the prior season, it would be Gillies propelling the Islanders to a five-game victory. He scored an overtime winner in Game 1, then famously twice fought Bruins enforcer Terry O’Reilly in Game 2, two more times in Game 3 and then took on tough guy Al Secord in the Game 5 clincher.
On a line with Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier at center and Mike Bossy on right wing, it was Gillies protecting the star forwards and grinding things out in the tough spaces so they thrived as scorers. Gillies compiled a formidable 319 goals and added 378 assists — plus another 47 goals and 47 assists in 147 playoff games — though his 2002 induction to the Hall generated some controversy among those that couldn’t appreciate his intangibles beyond numbers.
For those who did, Gillies was the dynasty’s heart and soul.
“Getting a chance to meet him once I got to Long Island was pretty special for me,” Eberle said. “Hearing so many stories from my parents and people that were a little older and they got a chance to watch him.
“With all of those guys on Long Island, you know they’re there,” Eberle added. “There’s a huge fan base, and those are the guys that built that fan base. The Bryan Trottiers, the Mike Bossys, the Denis Potvins and the Clark Gillies. Those are the guys that built that organization and are why that team has had so much success for a long period of time in that area.”
And that’s important for any franchise. The Kraken don’t have an alumni association just yet given it’s their first year in the league.
But they have players now who can make an impact later. Eberle is one of those, a well-spoken member of the team’s leadership group named to this weekend’s All-Star Game and who led the Kraken in scoring most of the season until a recent slump.
Mark Giordano is the team’s captain, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be traded by the deadline. If he is, it falls to players such as Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Brandon Tanev and others to begin laying the foundational blocks.
Like the Kraken, the Islanders had a tough on-ice debut. But they soon thrived under coach Al Arbour and the young core that emerged with Gillies at their center.
Gillies began his career in what was Year 3 for the Islanders. And he was still around to mark this season’s 50th year anniversary, attending the UBS Arena opening in November just two months before his death and apparently showing no outward signs of the illness that eventually claimed him.
The Kraken, once they turn things around, will similarly need players to stick around and show others how it’s done. For now, it’s up to Eberle and others to lay the blocks as did those Islanders from the 1970s and ’80s.
“Like I said, they built that franchise,” Eberle said. “The fans are so supportive of that team because of that dynasty. People are around that have been season-ticket holders since the 1970s. For them to all really be approachable and always be around on Long Island, where you get a chance to talk to them, you just learn so much. And they’re willing to tell you everything.”
For now, the Kraken must figure it out for themselves. And hope some of them stick around later to tell others how it was done.