-- It was crunch time for the Pittsburgh Penguins
, down 2-0 with a power-play opportunity and 4:33 left in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. But 1:51 into that important power play, Detroit Red Wings
winger Dan Cleary
broke Pittsburgh's back with a shorthanded goal.
The Carbonear, Newfoundland, native is one of those unsung warriors who always seem to be there at the most crucial times. After getting just one goal and one assist in his previous 16 playoff games, Cleary was front and center – one goal, two shots, two hits in 16 minutes, 51 seconds – to help Detroit gain a 4-0 victory and a lead in the series.
Cleary is one of those risk and reward players, always doing his best work in the impact zone around the net and in the corners where life is so unpredictable and dangerous to your health. He's also one of those players who play with pain and you can't keep them out of the lineup. Only his injury was right there for everyone to see, because he had to wear a football-like face-guard on his helmet to protect a broken jaw and fractured cheekbone that required three plates and 15 screws to repair. His face was dented, ironically, by a shot by teammate Mikael Samuelsson
, the Game 1 hero for Detroit, on Feb. 9 in a game against Toronto and caused Dan to miss 19 games.
In Game 1 of the Final, Cleary played for the first time without the face-guard – and he celebrated in fine fashion.
"It felt a lot better without the face-guard. More comfortable. My vision was so much better, especially in stickhandling," Cleary said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's like having a pebble in your shoe. You can still run with it, but it just doesn't feel right.
"I was afraid the doctors were going to say no, when I asked them about removing the face-guard. But they originally told me three months and they said the X-rays looked good so go ahead. All I know is it felt really good to have it off. And it really felt good to contribute as well, especially when they're on a power play."
At 6-foot, 210 pounds, Cleary is a little light to be a power forward, but since coming to Detroit he's learned his role – after being a first-round pick, 13th overall, in the 1997 Entry Draft and spending two seasons in the Chicago Blackhawks
organization, four with the Edmonton Oilers
and one more with the Phoenix Coyotes
– as a checker and go-to-the-net guy with the Red Wings.
But this work-your-butt-off-to-succeed story doesn't end here. Not by a long shot.
Even after finding a home in the Detroit lineup after the lockout by making the team on a tryout, with no guarantee of a contract, and playing in 77 games for the Red Wings in 2005-06, Dan wanted more than three goals and 12 assists. He once scored 53 goals in juniors for Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League. So, he started asking himself ... why couldn't he be more of an impact player at the NHL level? That's before he called his Easton stick representative and planned a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, to the plant to find the right stick to help him regain his scoring touch.
The neat part of this scenario is that the stick mold that Cleary used to score a career-high 20 goals last season and another 20 this season came from that trip, plus another trip back to the plant last offseason with Edmonton center Shawn Horcoff
, Chicago center Robert Lang
and Detroit teammate Jiri Hudler
Third-world nation. No air conditioning, bad water. Luckily, they had air conditioning at the plant. No, this wasn't a Planes, Trains and Automobiles comedy. Cleary's day without the comforts of home at a faraway play like Tijuana was worth it – it produced a working mold that changed his game and helped rejuvenate his career.
"You're always thinking about what I can do to score more goals," Cleary told me recently. "I guess a light just went off, regarding the sticks I use, because I remembered the Wayne Gretzky
model of stick I used back in Belleville when I scored 50-plus goals. I called my dad back home and asked him to send it to me. Then I FedExed the blade to the plant to see if they could make one for me with those specs and the latest composite technology. It's funny, I remember writing '53 goals ... Belleville ... 1995-96' on it. It was still there when I got it from my dad."
And now Cleary was clearly trying to put a memento to use today.
"When I got to the plant, I couldn't believe it," he explained. "The feel, the weight, the confidence I had shooting the first few pucks with it. It was definitely worth the trip."
And he won't stop there. Cleary and Hudler plan to go back to the plant again this summer to see if they can improve their equipment even more.
You don't often hear about how much players go through to succeed in this fast-paced, hard-hitting game – and here you have two examples of it with Cleary's injured jaw and cheekbone and his passion to improve his scoring touch.
No wonder the folks back in Newfoundland are so proud of him.
Just the other day, the students at Cleary's high school in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, sent a huge banner wishing him and the Red Wings well.
"It's pretty neat when you've got a whole province rooting for you, don't you think?" said Cleary.
Cleary is part of a select fraternity. Only two other established NHL players hail from Newfoundland, San Jose's Ryane Clowe
and Montreal's Michael Ryder
. And Alex Faulkner
, who was the first Newfoundlander to play in the NHL, was the only other player from that province to play in the Cup Final, with the Red Wings in 1963 and '64, when they lost to Toronto.
And one game into the Stanley Cup finals, Dan Cleary
has a well-deserved smile on his once-dented face ... with a desire to do so much more.