That dream is about to become a reality.
The small town of Conception Bay South, which won the 2011 Kraft Hockeyville competition in early April with more than 995,000 votes, will host a weekend full of events Sept. 24 and 25. Then, on Monday, Sept. 26, the Winnipeg Jets will face the Ottawa Senators at Mile One Centre in nearby St. John's.
Cleary, who was born about an hour from Conception Bay South in Carbonear, couldn't be happier for his neighbors.
"I'm proud to be from Newfoundland. I respect everybody's journey and how hard it is to make it to the NHL and pursue their hockey dreams. I love Hockeyville. I think it's an absolutely amazing thing. Whatever small town you're from, could you imagine having an NHL game come into your town?"
-- Danny Cleary
A first-round draft choice (No. 13) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1997, Cleary left home four years prior to that in order to pursue his hockey career. He started with a tryout with the Kingston Voyageurs, a junior club in Ontario; he made the team and had 18 goals and 28 assists in 43 games.
"Where we come from, it's a little bit different than Western Canada," Cleary said. "There's no developmental league within the island. You have to fly away from home to advance your career. That's tough on parents and tough on the kids. It's getting easier, but when I was coming through, there wasn't a lot of players that left home. I don't know if it was my personality, but I was excited to go take an airplane ride to Toronto and go to Kingston to try out for them. But being an NHLer from a small town can be an inspiration to kids, for sure."
Cleary unquestionably inspired thousands of people in 2008, when he became the first player from Newfoundland to hoist the Stanley Cup after the Wings outlasted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a dramatic six-game series.
"That was a pretty big deal," said Cleary, who has appeared in more than 700 NHL games. "I got to have it for two days, and not a lot of guys get it for two days. I think (Red Wings General Manager) Kenny Holland realized how big the situation was. Right after I won I was like, 'Oh my God. I have to bring this home.' I felt like it was my responsibility to the province to bring it home. I gave a full day away to the people for pictures and everything. I think it was an overall great experience for everybody."
Kraft Hockeyville will provide more special experiences for many Newfoundland residents, particularly the citizens of Conception Bay South. A town consisting of slightly more than 20,000 people not only will receive tips from former NHL players such as Kris King and Patrick Lalime, but also will get a visit from the Stanley Cup. It's all a prelude to the preseason showdown between the Jets and Senators on that Monday night.
While Cleary won't get to play in the game, Newfoundland likely will be well-represented on the Mile One Centre ice. St. John's native Colin Greening is expected to be in uniform for the Senators, while Jason King could play for Winnipeg. King hails from Corner Brook, which is on the western end of the island and more than 400 miles along the Trans-Canada highway from Conception Bay South.
"I'm proud to be from Newfoundland," Cleary said. "I respect everybody's journey and how hard it is to make it to the NHL and pursue their hockey dreams. I love Hockeyville. I think it's an absolutely amazing thing. Whatever small town you're from, could you imagine having an NHL game come into your town? I mean, it's amazing. I was blown away when it actually happened. An actual NHL game is going to happen in your town. For the kids to see real NHL players in a small little town, it's crazy."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL