CHICAGO – Dan Cleary
"Now he can flat-out do anything. He's a big body. He's good with the puck. He's strong down low. He can match up well against the best players. He's good on the penalty-kill."
-- Mike Babcock
often gets that impish crooked smile on his face when questions are coming at him faster than opposing defensemen.
And there is plenty of reason for the media to seek him out these days.
Cleary continues to find the headlines for the Detroit Red Wings
in this playoff year. He scored the game-winning goal in Detroit's Game 7 triumph against Anaheim in the Western Conference Semifinals. Then he added two more goals in a Game 1 triumph against Chicago in the Conference Finals, before he chipped in with a fourth goal in three games that helped the Red Wings beat the Blackhawks 3-2 in overtime in Game 2.
Cleary's eyes are not "fire on ice" like a Mark Messier
. They are sympathetic and competitive -- those of a battler. Dan is one of those unsung warriors that always seems to be there at the most crucial times. He's smart. He's only 6-foot, 210 pounds, but plays like a power forward who is four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. In other words, he can be a handful in and around the opponents net.
"Just when you think something's going to happen, just the opposite happens in games like this," Cleary said. "Each shift can be the shift. You never know.
"I feel confident in saying that I feel more comfortable in the moment with everything on the line. I know what to expect. I know what it takes. I know how hard it gets when the game is on the line. When I look back on each step it took to get here, I know very well how tough it is to make it here ... and to stay here."
Looking back on his 12-year journey and third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals, Dan Cleary
could sound satisfied. But he wants more. More success. More winning after being let go in his first three NHL stops in Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix.
For many, this could easily have turned into one of those biting the hand that once fed you stories with Dan facing Chicago, the team that picked him in the first round, 13th overall, in the 1997 Entry Draft. But ...
"That was eons ago. I wasn't ready to be in the NHL at that age and that time," Cleary said. "I have no axe to grind with the
At the time, Cleary was a young kid with the game at his feet. He got by in Brantford of the Ontario Hockey League on skill and speed. But that next step to the NHL brings on more responsibility and that's something some youngsters are not ready to work hard enough to earn.
Cleary spent two years, 41 NHL games, in Chicago before he was traded to Edmonton. After four seasons there, Phoenix became his next stop. And that's where reality set in.
"I came back from Mora in Sweden during the lockout and the Coyotes let me know that the last year of my contract with them had run out," Cleary remembered. "I was at kind of a crossroads in my life. I was out of a job ... and I didn't know if that meant hockey was over or not."
In June 2004, Dan married his sweetheart, Jelena, who quickly became his positive influence on life. He was out of work, with the
responsibility of providing for a new wife, and a lot was going on in his mind.
"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 to put my most positive foot forward. Give it my best."
It also didn't hurt that while working out in California with defensemen Mathieu Schneider
and Chris Chelios
in the summer of 2005, those two put in a good word with him Red Wings and he got a tryout.
But there were no promises. Cleary would have to earn a contract.
"I started out on the fourth line with Johan Franzen
and Mikael Samuelsson
. We were all just role players then. Heck, we're all still role players. But there's nothing holding any of us back ... if we can prove we can play a better role." -- Dan Cleary
"I remember that I was just trying to fit in," he recalled. "I started out on the fourth line with Johan Franzen
and Mikael Samuelsson
. We were all just role players then. Heck, we're all still role players. But there's nothing holding any of us back ... if we can prove we can play a better role.
"The way it works here is that good players get better and great players get greater. That's what happens when you're surrounded by good players. It just brings out the best in you and everyone blends right in.
"And there's more to your role. You don't have to worry about scoring ... just play your game. If you play a good two-way game, the offense will come. You just have to prepare to work hard to fit in here.
"I'm not kidding when I say coming to Detroit is the best second chance I could have gotten."
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock used Cleary on a checking line at first, but in 2006-07, 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, Babcock noticed some of Dan's offensive skills coming through.
What a role reversal! He went from 3 goals and 12 assists in 77 games in his first season in Detroit to a career-high 20 goals and 40 points in 2006-07.
"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."
Cleary's work ethic put his foot in the door. Then he broke it down with his courage and grit, following that 20-goal season with 22 in 2007-08 and added another 14 goals and 26 assists this season. Career-highs in the playoffs are already in danger of being smashed after just 12 postseason games.
"Now he can flat-out do anything," Babcock said. "He's a big body. He's good with the puck. He's strong down low. He can match up well against the best players. He's good on the penalty kill."
Life for Cleary begins and ends in the impact zone, around the net and in the corners -- a job that comes with no tips, no clues, no warnings. It's notoriously unpredictable and precariously dangerous. There's no in-between for a player who chooses the high road through the impact zone.
And Dan is making the most of his opportunity ... as his 6 goals and plus-14 indicates through Detroit's first 12 playoff games.
Now the rest of the NHL can see Dan Cleary
clearly for the type of hard-working, no-nonsense producer he has become.