To the kids in the caps and gowns, he looks like a grandpa. To the children at Huntington Hospital, his salt and pepper hair doesn’t distinguish him much from the other grownups, even if the building bears his name. The truth is, he will always be more in awe of the children than they are of him.

His imposing figure—six-foot-three and lean—doesn’t betray the fact that they are among legendary Hockey Hall of Famer Clark Gillies, an intimidating force on the ice during his 12-season career with the New York Islanders. Gillies, along with fellow Hall of Famers Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, was part of the unstoppable “Trio Grande,” who led the Isles to four consecutive National Hockey League Stanley Cup championships from 1980 through 1983. He was a fierce opponent, racking up more than 1,000 penalty minutes along with more than 300 goals and nearly 400 assists. His toughness is as iconic as his prowess.

But when he talks about the children at The Morgan Center—a Hicksville-based nonprofit preschool for children with cancer—any hard competitive edge melts into pure emotion.

“The kids have their gowns on and their little hats and their diplomas and they do a little parade,” the 59-year-old says of the graduation ceremony he’s attended for the past eight years at The Morgan Center. “And that’s when you see the kids. You see them so happy like that. It’s really fulfilling.”

Gillies’ voice becomes ragged.

“I get emotional when I talk about it,” he admits, before pausing for a moment. “Sorry.”

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The Morgan Center is one of more than a dozen charities Gillies has helped fund through The Clark Gillies Foundation, an Islandia-based nonprofit he founded in 1998 to aid physically, developmentally and/or financially challenged children. Others include Brianna’s Cub Room, a joint venture with fellow former Islanders center Pat LaFontaine’s Companions In Courage Foundation, which builds interactive playrooms in hospitals throughout North America, and Ascent School in Deer Park, a nonprofit school for 3- to 21-year-olds with autism.

The groups are diverse in scope, yet all share one commonality: helping kids in need.

“Our mission statement was really to help kids between the ages of 5 to 18 in the Tristate area, whether it be for medical needs, helping a school for autism, maybe a scholarship fund,” he says of his foundation.

The Morgan Center is a germ-free facility for preschoolers to learn and socialize. It’s often the only place besides a hospital where they can go during chemotherapy treatment. He also gives sizable donations to Huntington Hospital, part of North Shore-LIJ Health System and home to the Clark Gillies Pediatric Unit—constructed with a $1 million donation from his foundation—and Clark Gillies Emergency Pediatric Facility.

“We made a big commitment to the hospital,” he tells the Press on a recent afternoon. “It was easy for me because we’ve always lived in Huntington since I moved here, basically. My kids were all born and raised in Huntington, and it was easy for me to want to give something back to the community.

“It gives the kids a little comfort that they’re not being funneled through the regular system,” he says about the emergency pediatric facility. “They get a little more hands-on care, and I think that makes them a little more comfortable.”

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Gillies joined the Islanders as a first-round draft pick in 1974. Besides a two-year stint in Boston, Gillies made Long Island his home and never looked back.

The children of this Island are all the better for it, even if they don’t know that the man who hands out the diplomas with tears streaming down his face was once one of the toughest hockey players the ice had ever seen.