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Cleary finding a winning role with Red Wings

by Larry Wigge

Daniel Cleary helped give the Red Wings a 4-3 win in game 1 of their playoff series against the Avalanche. Cleary highlight video
No risk. No reward.

Those four words often can define the career of a young hockey player who comes into the NHL highly skilled, but not ready to admit that at this level of competition it takes much more than just good skating, stickhandling or shooting to make an impact.

Life in the impact zone around the net and in the corners comes with no tips, no clues, no warnings. You simply have to make a choice to pay the price for success in this danger zone or stay on the perimeter, floating around, looking for the pretty play before the team taps you on the shoulder to say your services no longer are needed. In the NHL, it’s that simple.

Just ask Detroit Red Wings forward Dan Cleary.

Early in Game 1 of the Red Wings’ second-round playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche, Cleary charged into the Colorado zone, took a short pass from center Johan Franzen and one-timed a wrister that ricocheted off the shoulder of Avalanche goaltender Jose Theodore high into the air, and landed behind the goal line.

The goal broke a 1-1 tie and gave Detroit a lead it never relinquished en route to a 4-3 victory and 1-0 lead in the series. But Cleary was not done on this night. He also was heavily involved in Franzen's goal that gave the Wings a 3-1 lead just over four minutes later, providing a screen in the high slot to help Franzen's tip-in tally in front.

The goal was Cleary’s first this postseason, and his first in 13 games since returning to the lineup March 25 in St. Louis after missing 19 games after being hit in the face by a teammate’s shot. He was left with a broken jaw and a fractured cheekbone that required three plates and 15 screws to repair.

At 6-foot and 210 pounds, Cleary is a little light to be a power forward, but a couple years ago he was one of those players on the outside. After being 13th overall in the 1997 Entry Draft, he had spent two seasons in the Chicago Blackhawks organization, four with Edmonton and one more with Phoenix – 329 games and just 41 goals.

During the 2004-05 season, Cleary played in Europe, where he experienced highs and lows in his life. In June 2004, he married his long-time sweetheart, Jelena. But after playing for Mora in Sweden during the lockout, Phoenix let his contract run out without offering a new deal.

"I began to realize what people say when their back is against the wall with no place to turn to," Cleary said. "I had no idea what might happen. I had thoughts of what I might do if hockey was over. But Jelena told me; 'Put my most positive foot forward. Give it my best.' She was my driving force."

At this point, an interesting question popped into my mind: Is it was more important to find your identity or your role first?

"That's easy, your identity," Cleary said. "If you don't know who you are and what you can do, you can't put your all into the role that's out there in the hockey world for you."

The Carbonear, Newfoundland, native, chuckled after giving that answer and then remembered how another of his positive influences -- T.R. Goodman, operator of the Gold’s Gym and Fitness Center in Los Angeles who has gotten a great reputation in training such hockey standouts as Chris Chelios, Rob Blake, Jeremy Roenick and Mathieu Schneider.

Cleary recalls Goodman asking him; "'Why aren't you a goal-scorer?' I didn't have an answer for him. I remember that I wanted the puck and thought I could be a goal-scorer after junior hockey ... but when I got to the NHL I realized that everyone here can score."

After scoring 14 goals in 2000-01 in Edmonton, he had to settle for a third- or fourth-line role. A knee injury in 2002-03 set him back. Then came Phoenix and a pink slip.

Luckily for the out-of-work winger, Cleary made an admirer out of Schneider that summer training in L.A. Schneider, then playing in Detroit, told Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland that if he was looking for an energy and effort player up front that Cleary would be a good fit with the Wings. Cleary figures that Schneider might have oversold him to Holland.

"Actually, I was my own worst enemy before getting my chance in Detroit, because I never worked as hard as I should have,” he admits. “I needed more energy to my game."

Identity before role and a need to get a contract in Detroit pushed the urgency button for Cleary, who made the Red Wings' lineup for the 2005-06 season and played an important checking role. But suddenly that hidden skill we talked about earlier began to rise to the top.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock admitted there were a lot of mock lineups going through his mind coming into training camp before the 2006-07 season, knowing that he would no longer have the benefit of the kind of offense that captain Steve Yzerman and power forward Brendan Shanahan had provided for so many years in Detroit.

Actually, I wondered how many names Babcock had to go through before he thought about Cleary potentially adding some of the key goals the team normally got from Yzerman and Shanahan.

"Obviously," Babcock said, with a big smile, "his name wasn’t near the top, since I started the season with him as the fourth-line center."

What a role reversal! He went from three goals and 12 assists in 77 games in his first season in Detroit to a career-high 20 goals and 40 points.

"Everything he's gotten since he came to Detroit in training camp before last season, he's earned," Babcock said. "What a great story of a guy looking for work and succeeding. He had no contract when he came here, but he never stopped working and hustling and was willing to do whatever we asked. A real team guy."

"What a great story of a guy looking for work and succeeding. He had no contract when he came here, but he never stopped working and hustling and was willing to do whatever we asked. A real team guy." - Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock
At the time, Cleary only could shake his head and re-visit the explanation of how he had to find himself before he could re-direct his career from checker to impact player.

"It had been a long time since I felt good about myself as a player," Cleary said. "I was so excited to finally be showing people what I thought I could do after I was a first-round draft choice. It’s funny, because I look in the mirror and see the same guy. A big part of my success since I came to Detroit is how you feel when you put this Red Wings jersey on and walk into this room and see such high-end talent. Honestly, I just wanted to keep up. I wanted to find my niche. I couldn't believe this was happening."

Cleary's goal in Game 1 against Colorado shows he's back in body and soul to the power forward mentality that helped him earn a new five-year contract March 11 – while he was out of the lineup, no less.

Food for thought? The contract came at a time when Cleary was in the process of losing 15 pounds and drinking his food through a straw.

"My daughter would jump into bed with me and she'd want to drink her juice with a straw," Cleary joked. "It was a long few weeks. You know you can only drink so many shakes. I was craving food big time. I remember late at night at like two or three in the morning, my jaw was still wired shut, I couldn't really talk or eat and had trouble sleeping most nights. Then I'd tune into the Food Network. I know that sounds stupid, but ...

"I’d be lying there watching Food Network shows and I’d be salivating and trying to order new blenders. It was unbelievable."

Now he's back in what you might call the NHL blender. That impact zone, where high risk often results in high rewards.

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