Has it really been that long since a Newfoundland hockey player’s mere invite to an NHL training camp made big news back home? When assignment to the Springfield Indians or Nova Scotia Voyageurs sparked endless chatter?
When even cracking the starting lineup of the Cornwall Royals, Ottawa 67s or any other junior club kept headline writers busy back on the far East Coast?
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With the NHL kicking off a new season in just under two weeks, this small province — with a population that’s but a blip compared to the Greater Toronto Area’s census — is poised to place seven players on opening-night rosters.
Never before has there been that many Newfoundlanders playing in a single NHL season.
Daniel Cleary, Ryane Clowe, Teddy Purcell, Michael Ryder and Adam Pardy are locks to make the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.
Colin Greening finished the 2010-11 hockey season with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators, but played well in a 24-game audition with parent Ottawa. Given that, and a brand new one-way free agent contract he signed over the summer, chances are Greening’s days in the minors are behind him.
In Buffalo, second-year pro Luke Adam is among a handful of players vying for two open forward spots on the Sabres. Adam, less than a year removed from junior hockey, played well in 19 games for the parent club last year before he was returned to Portland of the American league, where he went on to win rookie-of-the-year honours.
And his salary, at $1.75 million this year and next if he sticks in Buffalo, is relatively cheap by NHL standards, attractive to the Sabres who must trim salary to get under the league’s $64.3 million cap.
These Newfs, in other words, are hardly bit players, playing bit parts.
Need more proof? Consider this: Ryder, Purcell and Clowe were among the top 15 scorers in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
Ryder, though languishing through a so-so regular season campaign, was among the Boston Bruins’ top four or five forwards in the playoffs, as the 2011 B’s brought the Cup back to Beantown for the first time since 1972.
It was enough to coax the Dallas Stars to cough up $7 million for the next two years for Ryder’s services.
Apparently, the Stars like those boys from Bonavista. Dallas signed off on $4 million for a couple of years for Pardy, even though the big defenceman sat out most of last season with a shoulder injury.
Dallas, clearly, is confident Pardy can deliver some quality minutes in a support role on the blueline.
In San Jose, Clowe has emerged as one of hockey’s better power forwards, a big body who can score and, when needed, stand up for teammates. Within San Jose’s locker room, Clowe is looked upon as one of the team’s leaders.
Purcell, lost in the shuffle in Los Angeles two years ago, enjoyed a rebirth of sorts under Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay. Given ample ice time, Purcell rewarded Boucher and the Lightning with 17 goals and 51 points. In the post season, he outscored Steven Stamkos 17 points to 13.
And then there’s Cleary, Newfoundland’s first Stanley Cup winner, who may not only be this province’s most complete hockey player, but one of the top all-round performers in the entire NHL.
The Detroit Red Wings may be a little long in the tooth, but they remain championship contenders, though Boston, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Washington have their own views on such things.
Still, Cleary is a top six forward on Detroit, a player Mike Babcock relies on in an array of situations, when the Wings need a goal or are nursing a lead, or on the ensuing faceoff when the Red Wings have scored or just surrendered a goal.
So what’s the deal? Is it the pristine water? The moose sausages? Are we producing better hockey players, or is it simply a case that our best talent — once hidden in the nation’s outer reaches — is now being seen?
When it was suggested to Cleary that if he hadn’t moved to Kingston, Ont., as a 14-year-old playing junior B hockey, he would have wound up playing local senior hockey with his hometown CeeBees, he deadpanned, “I almost ended up with the CeeBees anyway.”
Cleary, of course, was referring to the point in his pro career when he was released by the Phoenix Coyotes. Following the lockout of 2004-05, Cleary had few options, one of them being a tryout with the Red Wings.
We know what happened after that.
As for being seen and heard, things have changed since Cleary left home. The hockey world has gotten smaller. Newfoundland hockey teams travel farther more often — midget teams, especially — to heavily scouted tournaments throughout Atlantic Canada and Quebec.
Then again, as the pros are quick to point out, if you’re good, they will find you.
And these seven are good.
As six of them gathered for a Telegram photo atop Signal Hill last month, shortly after the Royal St. John’s Regatta (Greening, regretfully, was unable to make the trip home from Chicago, where he spent the summer), they chatted amongst themselves, a gathering of Newfoundland’s foremost hockey talent.
And to their surprise, they learned that five of them have two years remaining on their contracts — Cleary, Clowe, Purcell, Ryder and Pardy will all become unrestricted free agents.
Greening, entering the first year of a three-year, $2.3 million deal, becomes a UFA following the 2013-14 season.
Adam, in just the second year of his three-year NHL entry level contract, has a ways to go before he becomes unrestricted.
“Wouldn’t that be something,” said Cleary, “if we all signed with the same team? Can you imagine what that would do back home?”
Just like we used to years ago, when we all wondered if a Newfoundlander could not merely play, but star in the NHL.
Now we know.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org