This Wing takes Flight

Bradley Bouzane
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Dan Cleary's career turnaround has seen him become Newfoundland's all-time leader in NHL games and points

More than a decade has passed since Dan Cleary was drafted into the National Hockey League, and while it has taken a long time - and three trades - for things to take shape, it appears he's found his comfort zone.

During previous stops in Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix, media looking for post-game quotes would often bypass the Riverhead, Harbour Grace native because his stats didn't justify attention.

Dan Cleary on the ice. Photo By Canadian Press

Ottawa - More than a decade has passed since Dan Cleary was drafted into the National Hockey League, and while it has taken a long time - and three trades - for things to take shape, it appears he's found his comfort zone.

During previous stops in Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix, media looking for post-game quotes would often bypass the Riverhead, Harbour Grace native because his stats didn't justify attention.

But on a stopover last weekend to the nation's capital, where Cleary and his league-leading Detroit Red Wings were facing the second-place Ottawa Senators, much of the attention at Scotiabank Place was surrounding the 29-year-old winger.

"Playing (with Detroit) does a lot for my confidence," Cleary said following the Red Wings' morning skate. "It's such a great opportunity, playing with the players I'm with, the system we're in and with the culture in Detroit of winning and work ethic. It's been the best thing to happen to me in my career, for sure."

Since earning a spot on Detroit's roster, his numbers have improved drastically. He had a career year in 2006-07, with 20 goals and 20 assists in 71 games.

This season, especially with the amount of time he sees on Detroit's power play unit - with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg - he's on pace to shatter that total.

With a two-goal game against the Vancouver Canucks Thursday night, Cleary is fifth in scoring on Detroit with 18 goals and 16 assists through 48 games. Perhaps even more impressive is his plus-19, sixth-best in the league.

To get to this point of his career, the former junior hockey phenom had to languish through some tumultuous times.

Cleary started his NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks after being drafted 13th overall in 1997, but never got the chance to live up to the hype in the Windy City.

After two seasons in Chicago, he was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers, where he spent another four years. After a one-year stint in Phoenix, Cleary was cut loose by the Coyotes. The man who released him, Mike Barnett, the team's GM at the time, had been Cleary's agent.

After the lockout, Cleary landed in Detroit on a tryout.

The three moves added fuel to his fire. With each change of scenery, he says, he took something new to build on and improve as a player.

"I learned so much defensively in Edmonton and work ethic I didn't have when I was younger," Cleary said.

"All these things came to fruition over time and it's always a work in progress. It took me a long time to put everything on the same page, but I'm glad it's happening now in Detroit.

It all came together at once

"Things came together for me at the one time. Physically, I'm mature. Mentally, I'm mature. And I knew I always had the skills. But you need to have work ethic with that skill."

Cleary's coach has also noticed a big change in his play.

"He's really settled into being a pro," Mike Babcock said. "Since his time in Detroit, he's lifted his game. He's playing the right amount of minutes, he's a fierce forechecker and I think he's got a bright future."

Cleary is the all-time scoring leader among born-and-raised Newfoundlnders who have skated in the NHL, with 201 points (82 goals and 119 assists) heading into Friday, 11 more than Bonavista's Michael Ryder.

And Cleary established himself as the most seasoned NHLer from Newfoundland earlier this month when he took to the ice for the 522nd time in his career on Jan. 10 against the Minnesota Wild. With that game, Cleary passed Deer Lake's Darren Langdon, who skated in 521 NHL games over 11 seasons before retiring in 2006.

He was no slouch in that record-setting game, either, scoring once and setting up two more in a 6-5 overtime loss. Cleary was named second star.

Cleary is proud of the accomplishment and received a congratulatory pat on the back from teammate Dominik Hasek while talking about it before the Wings' game against the Senators in Ottawa last Saturday.

While a Newfoundlander has never had the chance for a winner's drink from the Stanley Cup, Cleary knows the Wings have a great shot at hockey's top prize and admits the issue plays on his mind from time to time.

"(To be the first Newfoundlander) definitely gives me extra incentive," Cleary said. "You always want to go for it, and we got close last year, and we have another good team this year - a more balanced team with more depth - so my goal one day is definitely to bring it back home."

If Detroit does win the Cup, however, Cleary - who spends most of his offseason in California and Arizona - quickly confirms he would be bringing the Holy Grail back to Riverhead. With or with the Cup, he tries to get home for a week or so at the end of each season.

Things might have been different for Cleary in the early days, he said, if St. John's had a major junior team when he was a teenager.

He left home at 14 to pursue his hockey career in junior A hockey in Ontario because there was really no other option for him to get noticed by the right people. At 15, he was playing major junior in Belleville, Ont.

"I think the greatest thing to happen to Newfoundland is getting (the Fog Devils) in there," he said. "Kids can stay at home and develop, and you have NHL scouts coming in to watch and now more Newfoundlanders are getting drafted.

"When I was 14, I had nowhere to go. I had to leave to be seen."

Now that he's found his groove in Hockeytown, U.S.A., Cleary doesn't see any reason to leave. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season and doesn't feel the need to test the open market.

"I certainly hope I don't leave," said Cleary, who is pocketing US$662,500 this season and is likely due for a healthy raise. "We're talking now about contract extensions, so hopefully something can get done. We're talking long term.

"I'd like to play here as long as I can."

Organizations: National Hockey League, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators Vancouver Canucks Chicago Blackhawks Edmonton Oilers Coyotes Minnesota Wild

Geographic location: Detroit, California, Newfoundland Ottawa Chicago Edmonton Phoenix Windy Bonavista Deer Lake Arizona St. John's Ontario Belleville

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Recent comments

  • Gord
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Cleary at the request of His Agent, J.P.Barry, Paid a visit T.R,Goodman in California,At that time Goodman was Training with Chelois & Mathieu Schneider,of The Great Red Wings,Cleary developed a friendship with Them.Cleary had the skills of Hockey All he needed was to get in tip top shape & change His attitude Towards the Game,Which he did.Shortly after His Agent J.P Barry called Ken Holland of the Wings,There was an opening for Cleary with the Wings Therefore his hard work and Friendship Paid off

  • Gordon
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Daniel Cleary really has improved His Game Being Second on Goals Scored for The Wings [19] so far this year It's only a matter of time when he will break the 30 Goal Mark.The Red Wings has been good to Our Players in the Past, Alex the Great Faulkner also Doug Grant.

  • Thomas
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Cleary has been a tremendous asset for the Red Wings franchise. It's a great relief to finally see him prove himself in a tough league. Kudos to him and his work ethic. Maybe the wings could help Ryder turn 'his' game around as well.
    It's about time the boys from the rock started cheering for the best of the 'home grown', and forget about the maple swedes and the re-habs. GO Wings!
    Great read! Thanks for the internet access.

  • Joshua
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Cleary is a great player, he just works so hard that I can't help but love him. When he dropped the gloves with Pronger the other night I was very impressed. On another note, I've been to Calgary, Windsor, Toronto and all in between but where Cleary is from looks to be right on the ocean. Is that a beautiful area? I'd love to visit.

  • Habs Fan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    Too many people attribute Cleary's success to the Wings. Don't get me wrong, they have been a great fit for him. But Cleary changed his game completely and worked harder than ever with Goodman to get back in the NHL. He earned the opportunity to play with the Wings and he has done more than enough to keep playing with them. I always knew he could do it.

  • gene
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    We are all so proud of Dan.
    As a Leaf fan it's sure nice to have
    Dan, Michael and Ryan to cheer for. And Ted as well.
    THREE CHEERS

  • tony
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Cleary has been what the Wings needed, amd maybe what he needed as well. The culture around that franchise is all about working hard and winning. I hope they ink him to a long term deal before he becomes a free agent. We need him here, and I believe the cup in his hands come June should make him want to stay.

  • Dan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    Can't wait to come home this summer and see him with the Cup in Riverhead!

  • Jason
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    As a diehard wings fan its great to see one of our own playing with them. Dan is so lucky to have a supportive team and management in the wings and I look forward to seeing him win a couple cups with them in the future. It would be nice to see a young talant like Michael Ryder get traded to the wings or a simlar team with a desire to work with these young players. I think a newfoundlander playing with Montreal is doomed before they even step on the ice.

  • Gord
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    Cleary at the request of His Agent, J.P.Barry, Paid a visit T.R,Goodman in California,At that time Goodman was Training with Chelois & Mathieu Schneider,of The Great Red Wings,Cleary developed a friendship with Them.Cleary had the skills of Hockey All he needed was to get in tip top shape & change His attitude Towards the Game,Which he did.Shortly after His Agent J.P Barry called Ken Holland of the Wings,There was an opening for Cleary with the Wings Therefore his hard work and Friendship Paid off

  • Gordon
    July 01, 2010 - 20:14

    Daniel Cleary really has improved His Game Being Second on Goals Scored for The Wings [19] so far this year It's only a matter of time when he will break the 30 Goal Mark.The Red Wings has been good to Our Players in the Past, Alex the Great Faulkner also Doug Grant.

  • Thomas
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Cleary has been a tremendous asset for the Red Wings franchise. It's a great relief to finally see him prove himself in a tough league. Kudos to him and his work ethic. Maybe the wings could help Ryder turn 'his' game around as well.
    It's about time the boys from the rock started cheering for the best of the 'home grown', and forget about the maple swedes and the re-habs. GO Wings!
    Great read! Thanks for the internet access.

  • Joshua
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    Cleary is a great player, he just works so hard that I can't help but love him. When he dropped the gloves with Pronger the other night I was very impressed. On another note, I've been to Calgary, Windsor, Toronto and all in between but where Cleary is from looks to be right on the ocean. Is that a beautiful area? I'd love to visit.

  • Habs Fan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:01

    Too many people attribute Cleary's success to the Wings. Don't get me wrong, they have been a great fit for him. But Cleary changed his game completely and worked harder than ever with Goodman to get back in the NHL. He earned the opportunity to play with the Wings and he has done more than enough to keep playing with them. I always knew he could do it.

  • gene
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    We are all so proud of Dan.
    As a Leaf fan it's sure nice to have
    Dan, Michael and Ryan to cheer for. And Ted as well.
    THREE CHEERS

  • tony
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    Cleary has been what the Wings needed, amd maybe what he needed as well. The culture around that franchise is all about working hard and winning. I hope they ink him to a long term deal before he becomes a free agent. We need him here, and I believe the cup in his hands come June should make him want to stay.

  • Dan
    July 01, 2010 - 19:56

    Can't wait to come home this summer and see him with the Cup in Riverhead!

  • Jason
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    As a diehard wings fan its great to see one of our own playing with them. Dan is so lucky to have a supportive team and management in the wings and I look forward to seeing him win a couple cups with them in the future. It would be nice to see a young talant like Michael Ryder get traded to the wings or a simlar team with a desire to work with these young players. I think a newfoundlander playing with Montreal is doomed before they even step on the ice.