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Cleary continues to mentor future Red Wings

Veteran forward signed a one-year deal with AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Daniel Cleary knows his playing career is nearly over but he's committed to helping the next generation of players achieve what he did.

Cleary, who turns 38 in December, signed a one-year contract Friday with the Red Wings' AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins.

"It was a great experience for me last year to go down there, experience that, work with young players," Cleary said. "At 38, I know it's the end of the line but certainly I loved seeing the maturity and the growth of some young players. My goal is to be a good leader for these young guys, help them become great Red Wings. I love the red and white and I've already seen huge strides in a lot of these young players that are going to come up here and be good Red Wings for a long time."

Although it was only the first day of training camp in Traverse City, Cleary was already sporting stitches on his mouth.

"Yes, it's way too early. I should have retired effective last week," Cleary said. "I got hit in the face at the Joe, 14 stitches, but I got taken care of very well at the DMC."

Cleary last played for the Wings in the 2014-15 season, scoring one goal and one assist in his 17 games.

Last season with the Griffins, Cleary scored three goals and 12 assists in 35 games and played in all nine playoff games.

"My role is going to be to make sure these guys, when they get called up, they're ready mentally," Cleary said. "Work on some skills in practice. I used to work on one-timers with Bert (Tyler Bertuzzi) all the time. He couldn't one-time the puck that well because he wasn't focusing on the puck, so keep practicing and then he scored a bunch of goals on one-timers. It's a small example. 

"I certainly want to be a good role model. It's important that they see an older guy making sure that he's working hard and being a good leader on and off the ice."

Cleary said he learned from older players when he was establishing himself in the league.

"I remember when I was a young player, Chris Chelios was on my team and he used to always make sure he did battles with me one-on-one, these skating races," Cleary said. "As you get older, you want to be like that. I want to have a young guy say, that's great that he's working with me and helping me. For sure Cheli, and even when I got to Detroit, Drapes (Kris Draper) was a good role model for me, too, in terms of being a leader and working hard every day, never taking a day off. I always appreciated that and respected it."

Now Cleary is happy to be able to pass along the knowledge that he has to the players who are trying to get to the NHL.

Cleary played with Todd Bertuzzi so it was only natural that he would try to help Bertuzzi's nephew, Tyler.

"He's a great young kid and I really just saw him come out of his shell," Cleary said. "He's going to be a great player, he's exactly what the Wings need. He works hard, he's fit, he eats well, he sleeps well, he does everything that he needs to do as a young pro. I'm just encouraging him to keep going, playing well, made sure he read a lot of books, trying to get his knowledge up and his confidence. For certain he's a great kid and he's going to be a really good Red Wing. It is gratifying and it's great to see."

Last year was Bertuzzi's first professional hockey season.

After a slow start, Bertuzzi had 12 goals and 18 assists in 71 regular-season games

In the playoffs, Bertuzzi erupted for seven goals and one assist in nine games.

"When Danny came down to Grand Rapids, he was a great part of my first year pro," Bertuzzi said. "He taught me a lot of things, what to expect, what not to expect. He was almost like a father figure to me."

Cleary said he offered Bertuzzi a book on mental toughness in hockey.

"He was struggling early in the year and he didn't score a goal and he was down on himself," Cleary said. "I was like, 'Kid, you've got to read this book, this book helped me become a Red Wing for 10-12 years.' He read it and his first game back he scored a goal and I don't know if you've ever seen when he scores a goal, he gets all excited and he's into the glass, he's like, a couple of swear words, 'that book you gave me!'"

Wings coach Jeff Blashill said that learning from a former player like Cleary is invaluable.

"Dan Cleary did a real good job, from all accounts, from everybody I spoke to, of being a real good mentor down there, helping young players learn to handle daily pressures of being a pro," Blashill said. "There's just so many things they go through. He's lived it. Dan Cleary has been through lots of situations in pro hockey; he's been at the top, he was a go-to player, he's been a third-fourth line player. He's someone who can really help that situation."

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future Cleary will move into a coaching role. For now, he's happy doing just what he's doing.

"I don't know, I"m going to see where the path takes me, but certainly I have a passion for hockey, I have a passion to stay in it," Cleary said. "I love the Red Wings. I feel that I've given them everything I could and I'm going to continue doing it even though it's not in Detroit."

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