|Dan Cleary became the pride of Newfoundland when he raised the Stanley Cup up over his head, becoming the first "Newfie" to do so after his Red Wings took the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.
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Newfoundlanders, because of their distinct accent – think an Irish brogue – and gregariousness, are often the target of good-natured ribbing by other Canadians. But nobody is laughing at Cleary now.
You don’t laugh at a Stanley Cup champion.
Wednesday night, Cleary earned the distinction of becoming the first NHL player from the island to raise the Stanley Cup as the Red Wings took Game 6, 3-2, to win the Final in six tough games against Pittsburgh.
“I’m on top of the world right now,” Cleary said as he stood on the Mellon Arena ice, a title hat perched atop his head. “I can’t even explain what is going through my head right now. This is just unbelievable.”
The boy from Riverhead – a small coastal town about an hour northwest of St. John’s – has gone a long way from his humble beginnings, and he has taken a whole province along for the ride.
Now that Cleary has assured his status as the first Newfoundlander to get his name on the trophy virtually every Canadian boy dreams of winning, what will he do with his day with the trophy this summer?
Why, he’ll bring it to the island, of course. That’s a given. The plans, however, get a little shaky after that.
“I haven’t looked that far ahead, but I have an idea of what I would do with it, like everybody else,” Cleary says. “I’d like to share it with the people of Newfoundland. They’ve been due for a long time, to say the least.
“It’s something I’m real proud of. It means a lot for the kids in Newfoundland to see a kid from Riverhead go all the way, and that, to me, is the most inspiring thing.”
And, Newfoundlanders can use all the hockey inspiration they can get.
It is hard to make it from Newfoundland to the NHL. Presently, there are only three big-time NHL players in the NHL that hail from the island: Cleary, San Jose’s Ryane Clowe and Montreal’s Michael Ryder.
The journey to the NHL is difficult for many reasons, from the availability of ice time to the sheer size of the island to the inability or unwillingness of many scouts to work Newfoundland into a regular rotation. It also doesn’t help that St. John’s just lost its junior team – the Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The team was bought recently and moved to Verdun, Quebec.
“Danny winning the Stanley Cup does soften the blow of losing the Fog Devils a bit,” says Nelson White, NHL Central Scouting’s scout for the area. “It’s dragged the attention from the Fog Devils being gone to Danny Cleary chasing the Stanley Cup.
“For the hockey community in Newfoundland, it’s pretty exciting because even though he played his junior hockey in Ontario, Danny is a local boy that played hockey locally and was developed here in Newfoundland. It is a real proud moment for all of us.”
But Cleary’s triumph is about more than just hockey.
It is a huge story on the big island in the Maritimes, a provincial place that embraces the exploits of native sons – no matter the profession. But to be a trailblazer in the hockey-mad province takes the attention and adoration to a new level.
“Harbour Grace is a circus right now,” White said. “It’s a bit of a gong show, actually.”
White said those comments on the morning of Game 6, so you can only imagine what things are like now after Detroit finally won the trophy.
Bob Cole, the legendary CBC hockey broadcaster working the Stanley Cup Final, is from St. John’s. Like White, Cole has experienced the madness in Newfoundland and has a unique appreciation of what this all means to the people on the island.
“His hometown, Riverhead/Harbour Grace, they are on top of the world there and rightly so,” Cole said. “This is the first chance a Newfoundlander has had at the Stanley Cup. Alex (Faulkner), I should say, was in the Final, with Detroit, but they lost.
“A Newfoundlander getting his name on the Cup is big news.”
Cleary has felt the love from Newfoundland for weeks now. Despite living in a cold and sometimes unforgiving climate, Newfoundlanders are a warm and hospitable bunch. They have taken Cleary into their collective heart and have bombarded him throughout the playoffs with cards, good luck charms and well-wishing messages.
His teammates have enjoyed seeing Cleary claim a bit of the spotlight as this run has extended past the second round and the possibility of Cleary winning a Cup became a reality.
“It is pretty neat,” said Kris Draper, who sits one stall away from Cleary in the room. “Anytime you have basically a whole province pulling for you, that’s cool. I played there in the minors and they are a proud hockey province. And, it’s pretty neat that ‘Clears’ is here and you got a lot of people pulling for him.”
Cleary’s dad Kevin, an electrician, has been following his son for so long during these playoffs that he jokes he might not have a job when he finally makes it back to the island. Some uncles, cousins and childhood friends also joined the traveling circus before Game 4 and stayed around until Cleary lifted the Cup.
“It’s a great taste of home to have those people with me,” said Cleary. “They bring me back. You never forget where you come from. It’s support. It’s a great experience for them, too. They are looking at it through me. It’s awesome.
“We all grew up watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there is nothing like having a few Newfoundlanders around, that’s for sure.”
Especially because those Newfoundlanders know how to get their hands on some screech – a rum brand that is the national drink of Newfoundland.
As the first Newfoundlander to win the Cup, Cleary will be just about honor-bound as a native son to fill the bowl of the trophy with screech instead of the more traditional beer and champagne choices.
“Honestly, I’ve only ever had one shot of (screech), but that was enough for me,” Cleary said. “Certainly, it’s a popular drink back home and who knows, maybe we’ll get a bottle out if things go well.”
Whether screech ever makes it into the Cup is irrelevant, though. Screech and many other beverages were consumed early Thursday morning – Newfoundland is 90 minutes ahead of local time in Pittsburgh – as a province celebrated the crowning achievement of one of its native sons.
“I’m already looking forward to the party and the parade if he wins the Cup,” White said on the morning of Game 6. “Harbour Grace will be insane!”
White was right.
Riverhead and all of Newfoundland – from Corner Brook to Deer Lake, to Gander, to St. John’s – is insane at the moment, enjoying some Newfoundlander pride, courtesy of one Dan Cleary and the Stanley Cup that he can now call his own.