"The ice was the best ice ever. You used to go to Montreal, and they'd do things to your skates because the ice was so hard and so pure. They'd have to sharpen your skates a little more just so you could skate on that ice. The fans were just on top of you before they put the glass behind the benches. The tradition is pretty special."
-- Clark Gillies
This weekend, Clark Gillies
is going back to where it all began.
The Hockey Hall of Famer -- whose No. 9 hangs from the rafters of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum -- will be one of several NHL alumni on hand for the All-Star festivities in Montreal.
Gillies, who played in the League from 1974-88, made his NHL debut with the New York Islanders
against the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. Naturally, he would have had jitters anywhere. But the butterflies were hard to control in such a phenomenal environment.
"It just so happens that my first NHL game was in Montreal," Gillies fondly recalled for NHL.com. "Unfortunately, the (All-Star Game) is not going to be in the old Forum, but I'm going to enjoy the weekend. It's going to be great to get back up there."
Just like basically every other young boy in Canada, Gillies -- who was born in Moose Jaw, Sask. -- spent his Saturday nights in front of the television watching his heroes. Little did he know that one day he'd get to skate on the same sheet of ice. Or better yet, that he'd be enshrined alongside some of them in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"Growing up in western Canada in Saskatchewan, there were only two games you could watch," Gillies said. "Saturday night was 'Hockey Night In Canada,' so one week you got Montreal and one week you got Toronto. I used to watch the likes of John Ferguson and Jean Beliveau
and Henri Richard
. To get my first taste of the NHL in the Montreal Forum was really special. It was awesome."
But what was it about the Forum that made it such a great place to play?
"The ice was the best ice ever," Gillies said. "You used to go to Montreal, and they'd do things to your skates because the ice was so hard and so pure. They'd have to sharpen your skates a little more just so you could skate on that ice. The fans were just on top of you before they put the glass behind the benches. The tradition is pretty special."
It's also special for any player to be chosen to play in an All-Star Game. Gillies was selected in 1977 and 1978. The first time, though, he was unable to compete.
"I was voted to the All-Star team in 1977 in Vancouver, but I had mononucleosis so I couldn't go," Gillies explained. "Bobby Nystrom
went in my place. The next year we had the All-Star Game in Buffalo. It was myself, Bryan Trottier
, Mike Bossy
, Denis Potvin
and Billy Smith
all starting. We had five of the six starting players. It was a very highly competitive game. We played our (butts) off. The final score was 2-1. Billy Smith
was the MVP of the game. It was back and forth, up and down."
The following year is when Gillies established himself as the premier power forward in the sport. Playing against the Soviet Union in the 1979 Challenge Cup, he was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. The Challenge Cup -- which was played at Madison Square Garden in New York -- replaced the All-Star Game that year.
"The Challenge Cup was incredible," said Gillies, who had a goal and 2 assists in those three games. "That's one of my claims to fame -- I was the MVP. I'm very proud of that fact to this day."
The following season, Gillies and the Islanders won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships. He would remain with the club until 1986, when he joined the Buffalo Sabres
. Injuries forced him to retire in 1988 at age 34.
The pain of not being able to play the game he loves lasted a while. But Gillies -- who had 697 points in 958 games -- moved on to become a stockbroker with Raymond James. Twenty-one years after his last game, Gillies has a lifetime loaded with memories on which to reflect. He no longer misses lacing up the blades.
"That lasted for about five years," said Gillies. "You just get to a point where you know that there's no way you could ever play competitively again. I retired when I was 34 because my back was so sore I could barely put on my skates. I had a bad knee. But about a year later, my back felt better and my knee felt better and I'm going, 'Jesus, maybe I should think about playing again.'
"But by that time, you've picked another career and you're trying to do some other things to keep your mind off it. It hurt terribly to not play anymore. I used to play a lot of old-timer's games and things like that, which were always fun. I'm kind of impressed with Claude Lemieux
coming back after five years. It's amazing that he's able to physically do what he's doing."
It's also amazing at just how much the economy has struggled recently. While Gillies is confident it will rebound, he admits his job hasn't been a heck of a lot of fun lately.
"The last year and a half hasn't been very good," Gillies said. "It's a situation where you're going to go through bad times, and I think it'll make you a little bit stronger. Playing hockey, I always thought you had success only after suffering some severe disappointments. That happened with us. If you can survive this kind of stuff, you can survive anything. It'll make you better.
"I'm a very lucky guy. I have three beautiful daughters and I now have three granddaughters. I've had a pretty damn good life. I can't complain."