Power Shift: Cleary comes full circle

Friday, 01.02.2009 / 11:00 AM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

There was turn-it-upside-down poetry to Dan Cleary's day at Thursday's Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Big, beautiful verse for a guy who was picked No. 13 overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft and cut from the Canadian national junior team the same year.
Some ironic stanzas, too. The Blackhawks picked Cleary as their first-rounder that year, then watched him score precisely zero goals and zero assists in six games during the 1997-98 season and follow that with 4 goals and 5 assists in 35 games with the big club the next year. Cleary assisted on Jiri Hudler’s game-tying goal Thursday. He now has 13 assists on the season to go with 6 goals.
And not to forget that, whoa, dramatic opening pentameter when Cleary was flipped over the boards by Chicago's Brent Seabrook with just two minutes gone in the first period of the Classic. Last time I saw something like that, I told Cleary, I was a Pee Wee goalie in a traveling team game and my mom was in attendance. She saw the check and didn't return to any hockey game until my team's Senior Day in high school.
"The boards were a little lower than normal," Cleary said with a smile in the victorious Red Wings' locker room. "Normally you hit your back and you stay on your feet."
Cleary disappeared onto the Blackhawks' bench (where he said the "guys were pretty good" about helping me up) and somehow Detroit managed to lose Cleary altogether for the moment, sending a sixth man onto the ice just as Cleary righted himself and went back onto the Wrigley ice. The Wings were whistled for a too-man-men penalty that to a power-play goal for Chicago’s Kris Versteeg.


More poetry: When Cleary was cut from Canada's junior team in 1997, the national coach was Mike Babcock, who looked snappy Thursday afternoon in his fedora (the late Hawks coach Billy Reay would have no doubt would have approved).
"He was a huge talent, but we cut him because he couldn’t skate," Babcock said in his makeshift coach's office in the recesses of Wrigley.
Couldn't — or didn't?
"Didn't," Babcock said. "Oh, he can skate. He came in here for a two-week tryout because [Chris] Chelios told me he was a worker. He was competing for a job with—oh, who was it? — Rem Murray.
Cleary won the job. Murray headed back to his former club, the Edmonton Oilers, then eventually played two years in Finland before signing in Austria this season.
That tryout was after the lockout season, during which Cleary played for a Swedish professional club. It was equivalent to a former blue-chip college athlete transferring to another school as a walk-on.
"We worked him to death that training camp," recalled Babcock, detailing Cleary's double shifts for nine straight preseason games. "We thought we would either kill him or he would make the team. Part way through camp it was Rem Murray's job. By the end of camp it was Cleary's."
The former first-rounder re-engineered his game to become more of a defensive forward and penalty killer during the 2005-06 season, totaling just 3 goals and 12 assists. The next season, as the Wings advanced to the conference finals, Cleary went upwardly mobile too. He moved up from the fourth line and scored 20 goals. In Detroit’s Stanley Cup season last year Cleary scored another 20 and played significant shifts with the first and second lines.
Then he took the Stanley Cup up the Newfoundland as that province’s first-ever NHL champ.
"They say in order to win you have to lose," Cleary said. "Maybe that's how I needed to go."
Cleary turned 30 the week before Christmas. He doesn't look anything close to it at first baby-face glance. But then you listen and nod. This is a guy whose parents had to drive two hours to the nearest rink for organized hockey and who learned the game on backyard rinks that didn't have much chance of melting in Newfoundland winters.
This is a guy who flipped over the boards early Thursday to the crowd's gasps, then righted the Detroit ship with sure-handed stick work to set up the tying goal. This is a guy who muffed his first Chicago chance but didn't let the second one skitter away.
This is poetic justice in the fresh, crisp January air.
Every Friday, NHL.com Editor-in-Chief Bob Condor will write about players and teams on the upswing.