This isn’t a bitter family breakup; it’s just a bittersweet decision
Daniel Cleary leaves for the City of Brotherly Love today, to Philadelphia and the training camp of his new team, the Flyers. But you can be certain, without question, Cleary departs Detroit with a heavy heart.
© Associated Press file photo
He wanted to retire a Red Wing. Desperately so.
“I’m a Red Wing to the bone, man,” Cleary told me this week. “I love going into the season knowing we have a legit chance to win a Cup.”
It’s in Detroit where his hockey career was resurrected, where he won a Stanley Cup — the first Newfoundlander to do so — and a place where he had settled with his family, only ta few hours from his wife’s hometown of Hamilton, Ont.
This was not the case of a relationship gone sour. The Red Wings badly wanted Cleary to remain within the family, too.
Sunday, Detroit general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock — a huge fan of Cleary’s since he made Babcock’s team as a walk-on in 2005 — made several calls to the unrestricted free agent, trying to convince Cleary to at least head to Traverse City, Mich., where the Wings will stage training camp, on a professional tryout until some cap space was freed up.
As of 11 p.m. N.L. time Monday, Holland and Cleary’s agent, J.P. Barry, were still talking.
But as long as Detroit was over the salary cap — by just over a half-million dollars — and overstocked up front — 16 forwards, and only enough room at the inn for 14 — there was no way Detroit could make a commitment on paper to Cleary, lauded for his solid workmanlike approach and immense popularity within the walls of the Wings’ locker room.
And without a contract, Cleary was not going to Detroit’s camp.
Cleary, who became a UFA in July, and the Red Wings were talking before the free agency period opened, with Detroit offering a three-year deal not quite up to par with the eventual $8.25 million over three years he would settle on in Philly.
At 34, and this quite likely being his last contract, you could understand Cleary looking to get the most out his one final deal.
Thing is, between the time the Wings made the offer to Cleary and the player mulled it over with his agent, Detroit signed Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, using up some of the money that was supposed to go to Cleary.
But lost in that twist were the Flyers and Florida Panthers, two teams extending the welcome mat to Cleary.
Hence Cleary’s conundrum.
The Flyers, strangely enough, are in a more precarious situation, in terms of salary cap, than Detroit. Philadelphia currently sits just over $2 million over the cap.
The catch is, while the Flyers could offer no more than what Detroit could grant — an invite to camp on a PTO — Philly’s handshake came with a — wink, wink — guarantee things will take care of themselves contract-wise when the team broke camp.
In Florida, Cleary had his only guaranteed offer on the table. Great place to live, no doubt, and you know the weather must have been appealing to Cleary and his wife, but any chances of winning in the final three years of his playing days were out the window.
Up to Sunday night, Cleary was speaking with Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon, the Panthers’ general manager.
With Florida for all intents and purposes out of the picture — unless the Panthers ponied up with a fourth year — it was down to Detroit and Philadelphia.
But how could Cleary choose the Flyers over the Red Wings, when both teams were offering only PTOs, when he was telling everyone and anyone Detroit was where he wanted to stay?
Because Philly, with Chris Pronger, who will never play again, going on long-term injured reserve, the Flyers were eventually clearing nearly $5 million of cap space.
The Wings could not make any such promises.
Cleary went so far as to ask for $2.5 million for three years from Detroit — down from the $2.75 million Philly had on the table — because of his yearning to stay in Michigan.
For as much as Cleary was good for the Red Wings — he was, aside from Pavel Datsyuk, perhaps their best two-way forward, a clutch player in the 2008 Stanley Cup run that Babcock used frequently and in all situations — the team was good to Cleary.
And Detroit is known for taking care of its own. The Red Wings have frequently offered jobs to former longtime employees, from Steve Yzerman to Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby.
In terms of years of service and dedication, you’d have to think Cleary falls into that class, except maybe for Yzerman, and perhaps Mike Illitch would have had something waiting for him in the organization after his playing days were through.
So the question came down to this: accept Philly’s invitation to camp with a contract that won’t become official next month when cap space is cleared, or roll the dice and attend the Wings’ camp without knowing exactly what Detroit can offer and hope like heck he doesn’t get injured.
Take the guarantee or take the gamble?
For Cleary, who will be 37 when the contract is done, the risk wasn’t worth the reward.
And Motown’s in the rearview mirror.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort