SUNRISE, Fla. – Daniel Cleary knew last summer that this was going to be a season of adjustments for the 14-season NHL veteran.
With the arrival of so many young players from Grand Rapids, playing time would be difficult to come by. But while the season hasn’t gone exactly how he hoped, there’s no sense in pouting, Cleary said.
“This is what you have to do,” Cleary said. “There’s nothing else you can do. You bring a bad attitude to the rink, that’s no good. You have to bring a good attitude, a good work ethic. Listen, no one likes to not play, no matter what age, what level you’re at. Everybody wants to play and just be a pro about it.”
Cleary, who has played just once since Dec. 23, will play tonight against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center. It’s just the 12th game this season for the 36-year-old, who hasn’t scored a goal since his season debut on Nov. 5.
Against the Panthers, Cleary will play right wing on the Wings’ fourth line centered by Joakim Andersson, and opposite of left wing Drew Miller.
Cleary is in the lineup because rookie forward Teemu Pulkkinen was returned to the Griffins before the All-Star break and participated in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday.
For Cleary, he said he’ll need to be cognizant tonight of the challenges a player with limited playing time experiences.
“You certainly have to keep the game simple, make sure you’re moving your feet out there,” Cleary said. “That’s pretty much it, I mean, try not to do too much. It’s not easy to play sporadically. It’s tough, but it is what it is.”
Timing will be another issue that Cleary must deal with for as long as he’s playing a part-time role on this team.
“It’s a lot of different things that you get accustom to when you play more often,” he said. “Just the patience with the puck, making the simple plays, the little plays, knowing when the defender’s not going to be on you; you have a little more time. Takes a few games to get into the flow, but certainly haven’t had that luxury this season yet. The key thing is you stay positive, you choose your own attitude and you work hard.”
Cleary has had to become more of a cheerleader than an offensive contributor. It’s not ideal, but it’s a role that the former 20-goal scorer has accepted and learned to cherish on a team that continues to win.
Staying upbeat while not playing hasn’t been easy for Cleary, who has logged 932 career games in the NHL. But he does it for the love of the sport and for his teammates, especially the younger guys.
“I’ve never really been through something like this when I was younger,” he said. “As you become a pro early you go through it, but it’s kind of expected. This is the first time I’ve been through this in 12-13 years. It’s just an attitude. I’ve always felt that I’m looked at as a guy who has worked hard, certainly put the team first and I think that’s important.”
What Cleary has meant to the young Wings isn’t overlooked by coach Mike Babcock, who appreciates veteran forward’s leadership intangibles.
“Having veteran guys around that know how to play and know what to expect and know how young guys need to become good pros. It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Babcock said. “Becoming a good pro is a guy who does it every single day. Young guys have the success disease all the time. As soon as it gets going good they’re so busy feeling good about how they’re doing they don’t play anymore. That’s not the Red Wing way. The Red Wing way is you do it every day and you do it right. You need people to help you do those things. They don’t happen by accident. So having good veterans around is key.”