Daniel Cleary isn’t playing hockey anymore, not since he was, what, three? And today, five days into his 39th year, long removed from skittering around the ice at the old S.W. Moores Memorial Stadium as a little phenom back in Harbour Grace, Daniel Cleary couldn’t be happier.
“I have to be honest,” he was saying this week, “I’m glad I’m not playing. My body couldn’t do it anymore.”
Cleary is still a Red Wing, no mistake, but these days he’s in the front office, working in player development.
His official title is assistant to Detroit’s director of player development, Shawn Horcoff, a long-time friend of Cleary’s and former Edmonton Oilers teammate.
“I don’t know how I’d feel if I felt I could still play,” he said. “I know there are guys who left the game feeling they could still play, or still had more to give, but I have nothing left to give.
“So I’m content. I’m happy and I’m glad I don’t have to get up and grind out a skate where my knees and shoulders are killing me.”
The barking knees and shoulders – all of which require surgeries down the road – are the remnants of 1,059 career NHL games, a brilliant career that was nearly derailed after six professional seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes before getting back on track in Detroit.
He finished with 439 career points. Two hundred and seventy-five of those were tallied whilst wearing with winged wheel, putting him 35th on Detroit’s all-time scoring list.
For a spell there in the late-2000s, when he put together three straight years of 40, 42 and 40 points, Cleary was regarded as one of the most complete players in the game.
It’s why he was invited to Canada’s 2010 Olympic team summer evaluation camp.
During the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup run in 2008 — hard to believe it will be 10 years since Cleary became the first Newfoundlander to win the Cup — Cleary was Mike Babcock’s top faceoff guy, a player who saw time both on the power play and penalty kill, took draws after Detroit scored a goal or was scored against, and was on the ice as time ticked down in the one-goal, series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the old Igloo in Steeltown.
It seems like a lifetime ago now, and Cleary’s moved on, immersing himself into his new job less than a year after officially retiring as a player.
We say “officially” because Cleary didn’t play a single game with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins last season, though he did practice with the team.
Last year and the year before that, Cleary was in the minors, an assistant coach minus the title. Today, his role is more involved, but the job is the same: work with Red Wings’ prospects to help eventually get them to Detroit.
“I’m on the ice with the guys in Grand Rapids … I ran practice there last week,” he said. “The two years in GR, where I really was in player development, really helped prepare me for this day.”
Like other former Red Wings — notably Kris Draper, Mark Howe, Jiri Fischer and Kirk Maltby, and before them Steve Yzerman and Jim Nill — Cleary is learning the front office ropes thanks to general manager Ken Holland, and his allegiance to Cleary.
That’s because Cleary showed allegiance to the Wings, turning down a three-year, $8.25 million contract offer from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014 to sign three successive one-year contracts with Detroit.
He didn’t make up the money lost by not going to Philly, but he’s not set up for life after hockey, thanks to the Wings’ organization.
But whereas Draper, Howe et al are all scouts in some way, shape or form — despite the titles — Cleary’s role is a little different.
As a player development guy, he’ll move around keeping tabs on Detroit’s prospects, although he will take it on his own initiative to scout a college or junior game if there’s a high-end talent playing, “just to give my two cents, you know?
“I’m really enjoying it. It’s great … been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m working with (Dennis) Cholowski (Detroit’s 20th overall selection in 2016). I just had dinner with Michael Rasmussen (the ninth overall pick in 2017). I go to see the kids in Grand Rapids, go to colleges where we have draft picks, and throughout the OHL.
“It’s been a cool experience. I’ve been talking to a lot of different players who played in the NHL and are now in player development, to see how they work and how they interact, and trying to get as much advice as I can. Everything I’ve been told, I’ve either already known or I’ve adapted.”
As with any scouting job, it’s not for the faint of heart, or for someone who’s not fond of travel.
Recently, Cleary headed out west, to follow up with Cholowski of the Prince George Cougars, Rasmussen of the Tri-City Americans and Lane Zablocki, just traded to Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“My God,” he says, “it was my first trip out west. I flew into Victoria and later Kamloops, rented cars, drove around. Then I had to go to Tri-City, so I fly into Seattle and drive to Kennewick through a huge snow storm.
“I’d never been out west so just manoeuvring and planning your trip from a logistics standpoint, it takes some experience before you really dial it in.”
Covering the colleges is easy, he says. Detroit has a player at Boston University (Kasper Kotkansalo, 71st overall in 2017), two at Maine (Chase Pearson, fifth round, 140th overall in 2015 and Patrick Holway, sixth round, 170th overall in 2015), another at Union in Schenectady, N.Y. (Jack Adams, sixth round, 162nd overall in 2017) and David Pope, a fourth rounder, 109th overall, in 2013. Pope might be off the beaten path a bit, playing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“I’ll meet them after a game, chat with them, see how things are going, talk to them about the game,” he said.
“The biggest thing about all this is every week every kid sends us a report based on how they’re games went, how they felt they played, how was their sleep, their nutrition, their workouts, are they healthy and what can they do to get better. So we follow up. Sometimes I don’t tell them I’m coming to watch them, and sometimes I do.”
Cleary will be in Buffalo this week, taking in the world junior championship starting on Boxing Day. He’ll be in Buffalo for three days, before heading off to Nebraska for two days, home for New Years Eve and then back to Buffalo for the world junior playoffs.
The world juniors don’t necessarily elicit great memories for Cleary, who was cut from the Canadian team three successive years.
He persevered, and it’s advice he can relay to Cholowski, who was cut this year, or Rasmussen, who wasn’t even invited to Canada’s camp despite being a top 10 NHL draft pick.
“The key lesson in all this is that, you know, it means nothing. At the end of the day, it means nothing,” he said. “That’s an important lesson for these kids to learn. It’s not the be all, end all.
“Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a thrill and honour playing for your country, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world.”
Times are tough for these Red Wings, who missed the playoffs last season after 25 successive years of Stanley Cup post season appearances. Today, Detroit sits out of the playoff race, with a sub-.500 record.
“We’re going to be bringing in all of our draft picks this summer,” Cleary said, “especially the guys turning pro, for a full program in June, July and August. It will be about diet, sleep, working out, skating with skating coaches and working with skill coaches … the whole nine yards.
“We’ve got to get these guys going. That’s the only way to get the Detroit Red Wings any better.”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort