HARBOUR GRACE, N.L. – In the sixth grade, Daniel Michael Cleary wrote a short story about a “real, big tough guy from Detroit.”
The handwritten tale about standing up to bullies, kept as a memento by his elementary school language teacher, concludes, “Moral: never be afraid.” Nearly 20 years later Cleary is the tough guy, having conquered past demons as the Red Wings forward tries to become the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup.
“As Newfoundlanders, we have to fight for every inch of everything that we get,” says Don Coombs, mayor of Cleary’s hometown of Harbour Grace.
“Danny Cleary has taken that character and that personality of our province and made it work for him.”
There have been only 26 players from Newfoundland and Labrador who have graced an NHL rink, none of whom have hoisted the Stanley Cup.
In a province where the exploits of every Newfoundlander in the NHL makes supper-time news, Detroit’s post-season success has lifted hopes that the Cup will be engraved with the name of a native son for the first time.
The Red Wings, up two games to one over the Pittsburgh Penguins, are favoured to take hockey’s biggest prize – at least in many of the pubs and living rooms on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.
Overlooking Conception Bay, Harbour Grace was once considered the province’s second-most important trading centre. But large-scale fires, the decline of the seal hunt and collapse of the cod fishing industry dealt severe blows to the town.
It has rebounded somewhat as tourist destination, perhaps best known as the departure point for Amelia Earhart, who in 1932 became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, Harbour Grace has been painted red – literally – with flags, signs and decals bearing the Red Wings logo. Classrooms of children nibbling on chicken wings and yelling, “Go, Danny, Go,” flock to the local hockey arena, where they, their parents and neighbours congregate to cheer their hometown hero.
“It’s Cleary country,” Coombs says.
Not since Jamie Korab, also of Harbour Grace, helped win Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in men’s curling as part of Team Gushue in 2006 has this town been whipped up in such a frenzy.
But locals say the support for Cleary’s pursuit of Lord Stanley eclipses even that because it has been building for weeks, whereas Team Gushue’s victory was more sudden and unexpected.
Dale Gosse, who runs a local sign shop, has made hundreds of pro-Detroit banners including one that spans 22.5 metres along the side of the SS Kyle, an old passenger and seal trading vessel grounded in the local harbour.
“This Red Wing, Cleary frenzy started about a week ago and it’s been going very strong ever since,” Gosse says. “This has just been phenomenal.”
If there’s one man Cleary has to thank for this adoration, it’s Dick Power, his childhood hockey coach.
It even says so on Power’s autographed Cleary jersey, a gift he proudly wore Wednesday night watching the third game of the Stanley Cup final.
“Dick, Thank you for making me the player I am,” it reads.
For eight years Power coached Cleary until it became clear the young star with a penchant for putting the puck in the net had to leave home to chase his NHL dream.
At 14, Cleary left his community of 3,000 to play junior in Kingston, Ont., and later for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League.
At times, the teenaged Cleary had trouble adjusting to life on the road on the mainland and sought Power for counsel.
“We never lost touch and if Danny ever got in trouble, he would call here first,” Power laughs. “Then Danny would give me the trouble to go and see his parents and explain what was going on.”
With much fanfare, Cleary was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks 13th overall in the first round of 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.
“He went through a couple of rough times, but he came out of it,” Power says.
While his parents root for him attending the final, his grandmother watches intently at home, clasping onto a Red Wings tea towel.
“My husband, being a hockey fan, always used to say, ‘My God, it would be some good if I could only sit down, watch TV and see someone belong to you playing in the NHL,’ ” Theresa Neil says. “That dream came true.”