No.6 Daniel Cleary

Brendan McCarthy
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Newfoundland & Labrador's Ten best athletes Riverhead native has become pride of the province

You can be forgiven for wondering if Daniel Cleary's place on The Telegram's list of top 10 Newfoundland and Labrador athletes of all time was aided by timing. After all, the Top 10 selection committee's deliberations took place just shortly after the Detroit Red Wings won the 2008 National Hockey League, making Wings' forward Cleary the first player from this province to win a Stanley Cup.

But know this: no other born-and-bred hockey player from Newfoundland has played in more NHL regular-season (540) or playoff games (56) than Cleary and none have had more regular-season (209) or playoff points (19) in their big-league careers. So even if his name wasn't being prepared for etching on the Cup, Cleary has had the kind of career that can be argued as being worthy of a sixth-place berth on our top 10 list.

Daniel Cleary is this province's first Stanley Cup champion and holds the record for most games and points, regular and post season of any Newfoundland born NHLer. - Telegram file photo

You can be forgiven for wondering if Daniel Cleary's place on The Telegram's list of top 10 Newfoundland and Labrador athletes of all time was aided by timing. After all, the Top 10 selection committee's deliberations took place just shortly after the Detroit Red Wings won the 2008 National Hockey League, making Wings' forward Cleary the first player from this province to win a Stanley Cup.

But know this: no other born-and-bred hockey player from Newfoundland has played in more NHL regular-season (540) or playoff games (56) than Cleary and none have had more regular-season (209) or playoff points (19) in their big-league careers. So even if his name wasn't being prepared for etching on the Cup, Cleary has had the kind of career that can be argued as being worthy of a sixth-place berth on our top 10 list.

A decade ago, nobody would be surprised to see the Rivehead, Harbour Grace native among the selections. But five years ago? Well, that's another story.

And it's a good one.

Cleary was a first-round draft pick in 1997, taken 13th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks a year after he had scored 53 goals and 62 assists for the Ontario Hockey League's Belleville Bulls. Within a year, he had played his first NHL game, but his career never really took off. It just kept stalling.

He suggests that maybe things had come too easily for him, first as a wunderkid minor player in Harbour Grace, then with the Junior B Kingston, Ont., Voyagers, whose roster he made on a tryout as a 14-year-old, and finally, in the OHL, where he was sometimes touted as the next Gretzky.

"When I went to Chicago in 1997, there was no way I was ready to play in the NHL," Cleary told Mike Brophy of the Hockey News. "I wasn't mature enough and I wasn't in NHL shape. Growing up, things just came so easy to me. I never had trouble scoring. Because of that, I never really worried about developing a solid defensive game."

"It was weird, I just didn't feel right," Cleary later told Pierre Lebrun of the Canadian Press. "I didn't feel I belonged in the NHL at 18. 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."

He never found a permanent place with the Blackhawks, who returned him to Belleville six games after his NHL debut. Then came a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between the minors and Chicago.

In 1999, the 'Hawks sent him to Edmonton Oilers in a seven-player deal. After spending most of the following season in Edmonton's AHL farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, he earned his first permanent NHL berth in 2000-01, appearing in all but one of the Oilers' 82 games in 2000-01, scoring a respectable 14 goals and 35 points in the process.

But that was his high point in Edmonton. He put in two more years with the Oilers, but missed nearly 50 games in that stretch because of injuries.

By 2003, he had been set free by Edmonton, allowing him to hook on as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes, whose GM was Mike Barnett, his former player agent.

He couldn't stop the career slide, however. After just six goals in 67 games with Phoenix, the Coyotes didn't even bother to extend him a qualifying offer, making him a free agent.

It was the kind of blow from which most players don't recover.

But Cleary did.

Actually, the recovery had started shortly before he was cut loose by Phoenix.

In the summer of 2004, Cleary began - at the urging of his new agent, J.P. Barry, and his best friend, Shawn Horcoff, a former Oiler teammate - working out with fitness guru T.R. Goodman in Venice Beach, Calif.

Goodman has been widely credited for extending the career of Chris Chelios, a 46-year-old Red Wings defenceman.

"Physically," said Chelios, a teammate of Cleary's in Chicago when the latter was a rookie, "I don't want to say he wasn't working, but it just took him a while to learn he had to apply himself conditionally."

"I would have to go to that summer," Cleary told The Telegram's Robin Short when asked to identify the defining moment of his career.

He took his new attitude to a Swedish team during the NHL's lockout season, and he brought it back to North America in 2005.

He could have stayed in Europe, but wanted at least one more shot at the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs were willing to provide him with one - they offered him a two-way contract - but he was most intrigued by a no-guarantee, tryout offer from the Red Wings.

"We were prepared," Detroit general manager Ken Holland said, "to give him a training camp invite, and we were prepared to give him a legitimate chance to earn a spot on the team. But that was it.

Nothing to lose

"There was nothing to lose on our part. No money, nothing. But everything to gain."

The Red Wings, taking their first dip in the salary-cap world, were looking for bargains. Cleary was looking for someone to believe in him again as an NHLer.

"Sometimes you get these gut feelings - everybody gets them - and I just had this feeling about Detroit. I knew I was going to go there and make it. I really believed I would," Cleary told Short.

The Red Wings' coach was Mike Babcock, who had been one of a succession of three Canadian coaches who had cut Cleary from world junior training camps.

"Mike Babcock's recollection of Dan Cleary," Holland said, "was of a guy who wasn't in very good shape at the world junior camp. You know, great hands, great head for the game, but not physically fit.

"But I talked to (former Wing) Matt Schneider who worked out all summer with Cleary at Goodman's camp and Schneider gave him a high recommendation. He said Cleary deserved another opportunity, that he was committed, that he worked hard in the off-season.

"I remember hearing about this phenom. Big points in (Kingston) as a 15-year-old, goes into the OHL and leads the league in scoring for a while as a 16-year-old. So the expectations are this guy's going to the NHL and will be a tremendous player. He's a high draft pick, but then he starts bouncing around.

"We liked skill and one of the reasons I was excited about Danny coming to training camp was his upside. He didn't play too well in training camp, but all of a sudden he picked it up in the pre-season. He won Babs over."

That first season in Detroit, Cleary had only three goals in 77 games. But his play away from the puck impressed the coach. The following year, he notched 20 goals.

"I can't say enough with what he s done and as player," said Detroit veteran Kris Draper, "and we look at that and admire him.

"He came here with the attitude, 'Just give me a chance.' He earned his chance and he's really taken advantage of it."

And to prove 2006-07 was no fluke, Cleary responded with a 20-goal, 42-point campaign in 2007-08, despite being sidelined by a broken jaw sidelined that cost him 19 games. At the time of the mishap, an errant puck to the face, Cleary had all of his 20 goals in 57 games.

But the stats weren't the only thing telling Cleary's story, he had become a player Babcock would use in all situations, from the power play to the penalty kill. No matter if Detroit was up by a goal or trailing by one, Cleary was often used in the last minute or two. It was that way in the playoffs this spring. Cleary had just two goals on 22 games on the Wings' run to the Stanley Cup, but seemed to be always on the ice in crucial situations requiring energy and/or defence.

He had a coach who trusted in him and his abilities.

"I believe in people like Dan Cleary," Babcock told Lebrun. "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."

With the requisite Hollywood ending.

Proud Newfoundlander

"I won it for Newfoundland," said Cleary shortly after lifting the Cup during the on-ice celebrations following the Wings; championship-clinching Game 6 win in Pittsburgh.

"I'm real proud to be from Newfoundland. I can't wait to bring (the Cup) home so the kids can see it and they can touch it and, you know, if a kid from Riverhead can do it, they can do it."

Of course, Cleary did bring the Cup home earlier this month during a two-day visit that culminated in a Canada Day party in Harbour Grace, attended by 25,000 fans.

It was Cleary coming full circle after a career journey that featured plenty of bumps, every one which he appreciates.

"It was tough to go through but I'm glad I went through that process, I really am," said Cleary, who signed a new five-year, $14 million US contract with Detroit earlier this season.

"Looking back on it now, I wouldn't change a thing, to be honest with you."

rshort@thetelegram.com and bmcc@thetelegram.com




Selection criteria

The object: To select the 10 best athletes Newfoundland and Labrador has produced. Seven prominent individuals with an impressive sports background, together with Robin Short, Brendan McCarthy and John Browne of The Telegram's sports department, were chosen to make the selections.
The criteria: Athletes must have been born in Newfoundland and Labrador and spent a large part of their development years within the province. The field was open to amateur and professional, and male and female athletes.
The selection panel
John McGrath: A former Newfoundland soccer president, McGrath is chairman of the board of governors for the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame.
Brian Brocklehurst: A two-sport star in St. John's during the late 1960s and '70s, Brocklehurst was the 1969 St. John's athlete of the year.
Don Johnson: A former president of both the Canadian and Newfoundland amateur hockey associations, Johnson was also head of the St. John's Senior Men's Softball League and Royal St. John's Regatta Committee. He has served on the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and Canada Games Council.
Roger Grimes: Otherwise known as a former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, those in sports know him as an erstwhile Grand Falls Cataracts senior hockey player and Grand Falls Beothuks senior baseball player.
Terry Hart: Another Grand Falls-Windsor native, Hart has broadcasted local sports for over 30 years. He continues in radio today at VOCM.
Glenn Stanford: He's known most recently as the man who ran the St. John's Maple Leafs for 14 seasons. But before that, Stanford was a two-sport star - basketball and soccer - with Holy Cross and Memorial.
Alan (Tex) Seaborn: Seaborn has had a long-standing involvement with the Corner Brook and Newfoundland baseball associations. He served as vice-chairman and vice-president of sport for the 1999 Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook.



Top 10 best athletes

1. TBA -Aug. 23, 2008
2. TBA -Aug. 16, 2008
3. TBA -Aug. 9, 2008
4. TBA -Aug. 2, 2008
5. TBA - July 26, 2008
6. Daniel Cleary
7. Frank Humber
8. Paul McCloy
9. Colin Abbott
10. Michael Ryder

Organizations: The Telegram, Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall, Softball League and Royal Regatta Committee Canadian Sports Hall Fame and Canada Games Council Maple Leafs

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Pittsburgh Riverhead Harbour Grace US Detroit Corner Brook Grand Falls-Windsor Canada

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