Daniel Cleary has a career-high 17 goals and it’s not even January yet. “If feels good,” the Detroit Red Wings forward said over the phone Friday. That might sound like a cliche from almost any other player but it speaks volumes coming from Cleary. After a decade full of trials and tribulations, it appears he’s finally showing the form that was expected of him long ago.
“I’ve matured as a person and as a player, that’s the first thing,” said the 28-year-old native of Carbonear, Nfld. “I’ve dedicated myself to hockey. I’ve become a lot more determined.
“The last few years, I’ve really started concentrating on making this a 12-month job and training hard in the off-season and preparing myself.”
Cleary, coming off his first career NHL hat trick Thursday night at Columbus, also credits his wife, Jelena, for standing by while things were tough.
“I’ve got a great family, we have a little baby (five months old), my wife’s been so supportive of me,” he said.
The hockey world had just about given up on Cleary coming out of the lockout in the summer of 2005. He didn’t have a contract and not a single offer from any of the NHL’s 30 teams. The former teen phenom from the Maritimes, Ontario Hockey League scoring sensation and first-round pick by Chicago in 1997 had seemingly run out of chances.
“When you’re training all summer and you don’t know whether you have a job or not, that was wearing on me and my wife,” Cleary says in looking back. “But that summer really sticks in my mind.
“It was tough to go through but I’m glad I went through that process, I really am. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change a thing, to be honest with you.”
The Red Wings, feeling the pinch of the new salary cap, were looking for cheap bodies. GM Ken Holland invited Cleary to training camp on a tryout. That’s it. No promises.
To make the team, Cleary had to make a believer out of head coach Mike Babcock. Why the concern?
“He cut me from the world junior team in 1997,” says Cleary. “I had to prove to him that I was a different player and a different person.
“He remembers me as a 17-year-old kid who thought I deserved to be on that team but didn’t work hard enough to be on it. I had the skill, but you have to do other things, so, he cut me. But we’ve crossed paths again, it’s funny how things come full circle. He’s had a huge impact on my career.”
Cleary made the Wings last season, and worked his way up to Kris Draper’s checking line. This year he’s moved up to a scoring line with Robert Lang.
“I believe in people like Dan Cleary,” Babcock said Friday from Detroit. “What I mean by that is, he’s earned everything.
“He recommitted himself at some point during his NHL career. He dug in and he got to work. He decided he’s going to be as good as he’s capable of being. To me, what he’s done is given himself a chance to be the player that he is.
“It’s a feel-good story.”
This season, with Brendan Shanahan gone to New York and Steve Yzerman retired, the Wings needed goals from other sources. Cleary answered the bell after being put on a line with Lang in early November.
“There was tremendous opportunity and, obviously, Dan has come in and seized it,” Holland said Friday from the world junior tournament in Sweden.
Cleary’s 17 goals lead the Wings. He’s fourth in points with 28. He knew he would get more ice time this season, and he told himself not to miss his chance.
“Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to have 17 goals right now, but I was expecting to contribute more offensively,” he said, also crediting Lang’s tremendous pass-making abilities. “Once I got the opportunity, I just told myself to work hard, shut your mouth and go to the net hard. So far things have gone well.”
Credit the Wings for once again finding talent where other clubs could not see it.
“He’s on his fourth NHL team and I think he’s finally matured as a hockey player,” said Holland. “Some people, it takes them longer to mature, but the skills were always there.
“He came to us on a tryout and each and every day since then he seems to get more confidence. He’s a tremendous story for us because we needed goals, but he’s earned it.”
Family and friends are thrilled for him. After previous NHL stops in Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix, Cleary has finally figured things out in Detroit.
“I have a lot of family back home in Newfoundland and I think the whole province is pretty excited right now,” said Cleary.
The beauty for the Wings is that they’re getting this kind of production for $650,000 this season and $675,000 next year. That’s exactly the kind of bargain the good teams need to have to succeed in this collective bargaining agreement.
“In the cap world, you have to have people that produce beyond their cap number, otherwise we’re going to have 30 teams with 82 points,” explained Holland. “The cap is designed to spread the wealth and the only way to get ahead is to have people who are surprises. For us, Dan is our story at this point in time.”
Looking back, Cleary now sees how unprepared he was for the NHL.
“I just thought that talent would be enough, I didn’t realize what it took, the work ethic, the right attitude, the commitment on and off the ice,” says Cleary.
“When I got to Chicago (1997-98), it was weird, I just didn’t feel right,” he added. “I didn’t feel that I belonged in the NHL at 18.
“I thought I had something good going on in Edmonton (career-high 35 points in 2000-01) but I got injured and then wasn’t the same after. After a year in Phoenix (2003-04), next thing you know I didn’t have a job. That hits home pretty hard.
“I just tried to stay positive and kept telling myself that I could do it. The biggest thing for me was a change of lifestyle, a change of attitude, and change of work ethic. For me, the hard work is paying off.”
Babcock couldn’t be happier for him.
“I think it’s a feel-good story because it goes to show that, if you commit yourself and you work hard and you’re honest about your approach, you’re going to get the most out of your skill,” said the Wings coach. “And that’s what he’s doing.”