ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Dan Cleary, greeted Monday like a king returning to his homeland, fulfilled the hopes of a province that has waited nearly 60 years to see one of its own hoist hockey’s greatest prize.
But for the Harbour Grace, N.L., native, the first player from Newfoundland to win the Stanley Cup, the most important stop during his two-day celebration with the trophy was at a local children’s hospital.
“Having a child myself really puts things in perspective for me,” Cleary said after he was welcomed at St. John’s International Airport by hundreds of screaming fans.
“These kids aren’t feeling great, but I hope that the Cup cheers them up for that one special moment. And that’s really what it’s all about.”
Cleary, 29, brought the Cup to the Janeway Children’s Hospital, where the Detroit Red Wings forward signed autographs and posed for pictures for children and parents alike.
“I’m not the sickest kid in the world, but the other kids, they must have really enjoyed it,” said 11-year-old Ben Newhook.
Still, Newhook said he can’t wait to return to school in the fall to boast to his friends of the moment he met his hockey hero.
“Mostly I’m going to brag that I got to meet Danny Cleary, I got to touch the Stanley Cup,” he beamed.
Rebecca Cole said the Cup was much larger than she expected, but still didn’t trump her favourite moment of the day.
“I came for the cake,” the seven-year-old quipped.
Newhook’s mother, Chantelle, said Cleary’s visit meant a lot to the dozens of kids who flocked to the hospital corridors to catch a glimpse of him.
“Dan Cleary has done a really wonderful thing coming here,” she said. “These kids all need a little something to brighten their day.”
Cleary became the first Newfoundland-born player to win the Cup when the Red Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL finals a month ago.
His path to NHL stardom is well-known throughout the province. At 14, Cleary left his hometown of 3,000 for the first time to pursue his hockey dream in Kingston, Ont.
At times, Cleary had trouble adjusting to life on the road on the mainland.
He was selected with much fanfare by the Chicago Blackhawks, 13th overall, in the 1997 NHL entry draft. But he didn’t live up to the hype and his work ethic came under question.
He bounced from the Edmonton Oilers to the Phoenix Coyotes before rediscovering his scoring touch with the Red Wings.
“You don’t forget where you came from,” Cleary said about bringing the Cup to his province.
“Not only that, this is not Toronto. This is not British Columbia. The Cup has never been to Newfoundland. That’s the thing. … I think it was my duty to bring it home.”
Lord Stanley’s silverware has been in the province before while on national tour and was even in Labrador earlier this year for a junior tournament. But its arrival Monday marked a historic moment for a province that has only had 26 of its own grace an NHL rink.
“It’s unreal,” said 52-year-old Adrian Woodford, who waited for three hours at the airport to see Cleary and the Cup.
“Years down the road, there’ll be trivia questions. Who was the first Newfoundlander (to win the Cup)? What day did the Cup come here?”
Cleary will also bring the hallowed trophy to Harbour Grace on Canada Day, an event that includes a motorcade, meetings with minor hockey players and a field party expected to attract thousands at a local soccer pitch.