The 2007-08 season will long be considered historical given the turn of events in early November when Mike Modano
broke Phil Housley’s record as the all-time American-born point leader.
In a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, the gifted Dallas Stars center equaled Housley’s totals by scoring Point No. 1,232 and then shattered the record with Point No. 1,233. Other records have been established this season, but none, so far have garnered the interest of Modano’s accomplishment. Unless you live in the most easterly point in North America … on the island of Newfoundland.
The record that has captured the attention of Newfoundlanders this season was set by Daniel Cleary in mid-January when the Detroit Red Wings’ forward surpassed Darren Langdon’s 521 NHL games, a record for players groomed in the Newfoundland minor hockey system. While Keith Brown’s 876 games is tops among Newfoundland-born players, the former defenseman moved off the island as a child and is more properly considered a product of the hockey programs in Western Canada. Cleary is a Newfoundland hockey player, born and bred.
Cleary caught the attention of hockey scouts as a teenager and enjoyed an incredible junior hockey career with the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls, where he was selected for the OHL’s All-Rookie Team in 1995 and followed with two consecutive years on the OHL’s First All-Star Team (1996, 1997). The Chicago Blackhawks snapped him up when he was still available as the 13th choice in the first round of the 1997 Entry Draft.
Expectations were high when the young sensation joined the Blackhawks for the 1997-98 campaign, but Cleary never got his game together in the Windy City. After two unspectacular seasons with the Blackhawks, in which he shuttled between the parent club and their minor-league affiliates in Portland and Indianapolis, Cleary was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers on March 20, 1999, with Chad Kilger, Ethan Moreau and Christian Laflamme for Boris Mironov, Dean McAmmond and Jonas Elofsson.
The change in venue suited the Carbonear native as the Oilers helped Cleary find his defensive game. He then played a single season with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003-04, but didn’t start to put his complete game together until arriving in Detroit two years ago.
“I think what happened in Detroit is the expectations were very low and he wasn’t expected to go out and carry the team like he was in Chicago,” Ottawa Senators assistant coach Ron Low said. “There was also a lot of pressure on him to score goals when he was in Edmonton. I was scouting for the Rangers and Ottawa during Cleary’s years in Edmonton and watched him play a lot of games there. Believe me, people didn’t quit on him because he was a great player. He really struggled. He struggled for a lot of reasons. But in Edmonton he found a defensive game.”
“Cleary learned to play away from the puck,” Low said. “I remember (Oilers coach) Craig MacTavish saying lots of times what Danny Cleary did tonight you won’t see on the score sheet, but he played a solid defensive hockey game. Cleary was good defensively in Edmonton, he was really good. He was used in the penalty killing role, likely for the first time in his life. Now when you watch him you see a well-rounded player.
”There is a higher skill level in Detroit than when he was in Edmonton and when you play with skilled guys and go to the net you are usually rewarded by getting the puck pretty close to your tape,” Low said. “Cleary always had the skill to score and when the pressure was lifted off him to do that in Detroit he became a much more rounded player.”
Cleary has excellent vision down low and is very strong on the puck. The 6-foot, 210-pound winger is not a punishing hitter, but doesn’t shy away from physical play in the corners or in front of the net where his anticipation, speed, and accurate shot make him a constant threat. He is a player the Red Wings can rely on in the last minute of the game because his defensive intelligence enables Cleary to kill penalties and neutralize the other team’s top line.
“I don’t know if people realize how important he is for this team,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Dan is one of the most underrated players in the League. He does everything. Dan is good with the puck, great on the penalty kill, stands in front on the power play, and is just a really good player. He has a great attitude and is superb in the locker room, always fun to be around and puts the team ahead of himself. Dan Cleary is a great guy to have on the team.”
Dan is one of the most underrated players in the League. He does everything. Dan is good with the puck, great on the penalty kill, stands in front on the power play, and is just a really good player. He has a great attitude and is superb in the locker room. - Teammate Niklas Kronwall
In the autumn of 2005, Cleary was a player without a team and some observers wondered if Cleary would play another NHL game. But the Red Wings granted him a tryout. Cleary seized the opportunity.
“They gave me an opportunity when I came in here and I grabbed it,” Cleary said. “My evolution as a hockey player has been interesting to say the least. I was a good scorer in junior, so that carried into the expectations at the pro level. I just wasn’t ready confidence-wise or strength-wise to play in the NHL after junior. I was only in Chicago a short time and then went to Edmonton which was a good learning experience for me. Coach MacTavish really helped my game. I learned to play away from the puck in Edmonton and, to be honest, I think that’s the biggest reason why I am here right now. I came to Detroit on a tryout and I didn’t make it as a scorer, but as a guy that can be dependable defensively.”
Ironically, Cleary made an immediate statement about his offensive skill by registering his first point as a Red Wing on opening night of the 2005-06 season. Last season, he established career-highs in goals (20) points (40) and plus/minus (plus-6). He ranked fourth on the team in playoff scoring with a career-high four goals and eight assists, paced the Red Wings with eight road points and led all scorers during the 2007 postseason with two shorthanded goals. This season he has emerged as an indispensable two-way performer on a team laden with stars and already has 20 goals in just 55 games.
“Like a lot of NHL players, it sometimes takes a while to find your game,” says veteran Ottawa defenseman Luke Richardson. “It may take a few teams and sometimes a little luck in finding the right coach or organization to give you that chance. I think things have fallen in place for Dan, but you obviously have to have the talent once you have that chance to prevail. He has done that. It is a great accomplishment for Dan. He is a gritty player who plays hard all the time.”
“I’ve known Danny for a long time and he has really settled into being a pro,” adds Detroit head coach Mike Babcock. “Since coming to Detroit he has really lifted his game and he was ready for that to happen. He started checking for us and is now scoring more. Danny has good hockey sense, is strong on the puck, a fierce forechecker and I think he’s got a bright future.”
What is it about the Red Wings’ organization that enables them to take players that other teams have deemed expendable and support them in reaching their potential?
“They certainly bring out the best in a player,” Cleary said. “The whole mindset that I have learned in Detroit is team-first, work ethic and humility. Everyone here is so humble and hard-working. If you don’t follow, you’re not going to be around. I worked hard at it from the start and now I’ve got even more opportunity to reach my potential. This team is simply surrounded with good people.”
The whole mindset that I have learned in Detroit is team-first, work ethic and humility. Everyone here is so humble and hard-working. If you don’t follow, you’re not going to be around. I worked hard at it from the start and now I’ve got even more opportunity to reach my potential. This team is simply surrounded with good people. - Dan Cleary
Some call it a Red Wings “culture.”
“That’s a good word,” Cleary said. “It is certainly applicable. It is a winning culture and a work-ethic culture. When you put skill and work ethic together, it’s sometimes hard to stop.”
Cleary has found a home in Detroit, but he does not forget the minor hockey system that nurtured him or those who preceded his emergence as a leader among Newfoundland hockey players.
The first Newfoundlander in the NHL was Alex Faulkner, whose finest hour occurred in March of 1963 when he scored five goals in eight playoff games for Detroit. Doug Grant was the best goaltender ever produced in the Newfoundland hockey system. The steady netminder played for the Red Wings and St. Louis Blues in the 1970’s and ended his professional hockey career with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles winning back-to-back trophies as the Central Hockey League’s most outstanding goaltender. Tony White scored 25 goals as a rookie with the Washington Capitals in 1975-76 and helped pave the way for Newfoundland’s current generation of NHLers, including Cleary, Michael Ryder of the Montreal Canadiens and Ryane Clowe of the San Jose Sharks.
“I have a lot of respect for the players that came before me,” Cleary said. “They definitely paved the way for me. I hope that myself, Ryder and Clowe can provide some inspiration to the next generation. You are going to see more Newfoundlanders in the NHL, that’s for sure. The biggest thing is having that junior team there (the Quebec League’s St. John’s Fog Devils). Now local kids throughout Newfoundland can develop and be seen by NHL scouts.”
Newfoundlanders are proud of their native son as Cleary adds to his landmark achievement with each game played in a Red Wings jersey.
“And they should be,” Low said. “Danny has resurrected a career where he was going nowhere and has become a good hockey player. In fact, he is a real good hockey player.”