As his career winds down, Daniel Cleary has no regrets leaving big money on the table in Philly
Third in a six-part series
Tomorrow: Colin Greening
Six million dollars???!!! That’s a lot of dough, but in the big money world of professional sports, six million big ones might be considered somewhere in the range of lunch money or a small purchase.
But in the real world, $6 million is, well, six million dollars!!!
Daniel Cleary knows the question is coming. He has to. He knows most of us can’t quite grasp the fact he essentially walked away from a pile of money a couple of months ago, just as National Hockey League teams were readying for training camp.
“There’s more to the story,” he says.
Well, we’re listening ...
It starts last summer, when Cleary — who will be permanently known as the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup — found himself an unrestricted free agent.
He was coming off his 15th professional hockey season, a 34-year-old bruised and battered Red Wing for the past eight years.
There were reasons not to sign the product of Riverhead, Harbour Grace who, as a 15-year-old wunderkind, moved away from home to Kingston, Ont. to play junior A hockey.
But the upside of having Cleary back in the Detroit fold outweighed the drawbacks. And judging by last spring’s playoffs, he proved he still had game with 10 post-season in 14 games — second only to captain Henrik Zetterberg — as the Red Wings made it through two rounds of the playoffs.
The Red Wings didn’t have a lot of wiggle room under the salary cap — today, in the new NHL, it’s the single most determining factor in trades and roster makeup — not to mention the fact Detroit was top heavy in forwards under contract.
As teams were preparing for camp, Cleary was home in the Detroit suburbs questioning himself how it was all going to shake down. Florida was sniffing around, and — let’s be honest — the thoughts of hanging out in Miami’s South Beach in February was appealing.
When the phone rang.
It was his agent, J.P. Barry, with news Philadelphia was more than just interested. The Flyers were prepared to put their money where their mouth is — $8.25 million over three years.
He would, in effect, end his career on Broad Street.
There was a bit of a catch, however. The Flyers, known within the NHL as cowboys when it comes to contracts and trades, were already over the cap by $2 million when the offer to Cleary was made. But the deal was the Flyers could offer no more than Detroit could grant, an invite to camp on a professional tryout.
But Philly’s handshake came with a — wink, wink — guarantee that things would take care of themselves contract-wise when the team broke camp and the Flyers were able to free up cap space.
So the decision was made. Philadelphia it was. Cleary’s wife, Jelena, and daughters Elle, 7, and Lola, 4 — one of whom was in school and the other about to start — would probably remain in Michigan while he headed off to Pennsylvania.
Cleary wasn’t happy.
So, he reached out one last time to Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock. He even drove to Traverse City, Mich., where the Wings hold camp, to meet face to face with the two.
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Holland and Babcock are big fans of Cleary’s. They like his character — good dressing room guy, as they call it in hockey. They wanted him in Detroit, and Cleary wanted to remain in Detroit. All they had to do was make it happen.
And they did, to the tune of $1.75 million for one year, with a no-trade clause. Holland would worry about the cap crunch, and Babcock the glut of forwards later.
Done deal. He was staying in Motown.
Six million dollars!!!
By opting to remain in Motown, that’s effectively what Cleary was leaving on the table.
“It was a family decision, and a personal decision, too,” Cleary said recently in, ironically enough, Philly, where the Red Wings made their first visit of the year.
“I didn’t want to leave home.
“And I love playing for the Red Wings. I love putting on that jersey. It’s an honour for me to play in Detroit and wear that logo.”
Cleary won’t admit as much, but hints that was part of the deal — the Red Wings might have offered something in the organization when his playing days are done.
Which wouldn’t be unlike Detroit. Steve Yzerman moved into the front office when his brilliant career ended. Mark Howe closed out his career as a Red Wing and is now the director of pro scouting. Jim Nill also joined the Detroit front office and is now the Dallas Stars’ GM. Jiri Fischer, Kirk Maltby, Chris Osgood and Chris Chelios all have jobs in the organization.
Heck, Detroit legend Ted Lindsay still has his own locker in the Red Wings dressing room where he often comes to exercise.
“I can see myself staying in the game in some capacity when I’m done,” he says.
“We’ll see how it unfolds. Obviously, I have a good relationship with a lot of people here. I feel like I have a certain knowledge for the game, a pretty good hockey IQ. I’ve been around a long time, so we’ll see.”
Cleary maintains he has no regrets, even if Detroit is struggling this year, clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot at the Olympic break, two points behind the Flyers, strangely enough.
Besides, he’s made almost $20 million in his career.
Sitting in a small broom closet-like room inside the Red Wings’ locker room in Philly, which subs as goalie coach Jim Bedard’s change area, Cleary speaks of his difficult 2013-14 season.
As he talks, a lump of chewing tobacco protrudes from his bottom lip.
Fitting, since Cleary’s taken many lumps over the years, and that’s just the small stuff.
There have been a couple of knee injuries, a few separated shoulders, a broken jaw. And in late December, he lost 10 teeth after he was hit in the mouth by the puck in Nashville.
“I took out my mouth guard and I had more teeth sitting inside that,” he said.
To say Cleary is on the back nine of his great career might be an understatement. He’s probably on the 17th green.
He reinvented his game to remain in the NHL in 2005. He may be beyond that now.
He will finish with the most games played in the NHL of any Newfoundlander. He will be able to boast he very nearly put together six straight years of 20 goals — a streak interrupted by a 19-goal 2009-10 campaign. In 2009, he was good enough to be considered on Canada’s long list for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Today, at the Olympic break, he has only four goals and eight points in 52 games.
Against the Flyers, he started on Detroit’s first line with Daniel Alfredsson and Darren Helm, but finished the game skating with a pair of kids up from Grand Rapids of the American league.
In the five subsequent games since, leading up to the break, Cleary has been a healthy scratch each time.
It’s not the first time Babcock — who along with Holland was convinced to give Cleary a tryout way back in 2005 at the urging of his off-season workout partner, Mathieu Schneider — scratched Cleary. That happened back on Nov. 12.
“First time in, what, 10 years? It wasn’t an easy decision for Babs, but you have to be pro about it,” Cleary said.
“It sucks, no doubt about it. But when you play a long time, it’s hard to be consistently good.”
Cleary, of course, isn’t the only banged-up Red Wing. Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and newcomer Stephen Weiss have all missed considerable time.
“Like any other guy who’s been in the league a while,” Cleary says, “I’m starting to feel it in the mornings now, in different areas of the body.
“Yes, for sure, it takes a little while to get warmed up nowadays.”
Despite the fact it’s been a trying season, and the Red Wings are no longer the juggernaut they once were, Cleary still has the passion for the game.
“Oh yeah, for sure. I think the one thing for me is I really get amped come playoff time,” he said.
“That’s where I really burn for it. After winning a Cup, you want to win so bad again and that’s why we all play.
“It’s been a trying season, personally. You’d like to score more, you’d like to be healthy. But we feel we have a good team once everybody is healthy and on board.”
Health, production, Cleary and the Red Wings.
The six-million-dollar question.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort