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It's been tough road to 800 for Cleary

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Danny Cleary hopes to play in career game No. 800 tonight when the Red Wings face-off against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena. (Photo by Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ArizonaDanny Cleary hasn’t given much thought to longevity milestones like the one he should achieve tonight, as long as he’s in the lineup against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena.

“I’ve been in the league a long time and I’m very fortunately to have 800 games,” Cleary said following Monday’s morning skate in the desert. “But there are guys in here with a lot more than 800.”

If Cleary plays, he will join teammates Nicklas Lidstrom (1,547), Todd Bertuzzi (1,069), Tomas Holmstrom (998) and Brad Stuart (849) in reaching the 800 games-played plateau. 

However, it’s not known whether Cleary will play tonight, especially since he left the ice shortly after the Monday’s morning skate began. The Red Wings’ forward has been bothered for a few months now by a painful Baker’s cyst which formed behind his left knee. The cyst ruptured last Wednesday, even landing him in a Vancouver hospital for a day.

Despite the pain and discomfort though, Cleary said he’s roughly 75 percent certain that he’ll play against his old team. “It’s really sore today. I had a hard time skating on it, but hopefully it gets a little bit loose.”

Now in his 14th NHL season, Cleary is in his seventh campaign with the Wings, for whom he has played the majority of his pro games with. He's played nearly 59 percent of his NHL games with the Red Wings, and despite the knee pain, is currently on a four-game points streak (a goal, four assists), which is his longest of the season.

It’s also with Detroit that he has sustained three debilitating injuries – two pretty serious – in three consecutive seasons with a broken jaw (2008), scratched cornea (2009) and fractured ankle (2010).

The eye injury was a concern, but having his jaws wired for three weeks isn’t something Cleary would wish on any hockey player.

“That was a tough one to handle there,” he said. “When you’re in front you have to be very careful, guys shooting high, I don’t want to get hit like that again. I’ve had a couple of good ones. The eye was scary, but the jaw was worse.”

Unfortunately, for the kind of dirty work players like Cleary and Holmstrom perform on a nightly basis in front of the opposite’s net, injuries are part of the program.

“I’ve only been playing in front of the net for like the last six years, since I’ve been in Detroit,” said Cleary, who was prolific scoring machine in juniors. “Certainly, there’s a price to be paid for going around the net.”

Wings coach Mike Babcock agreed with Cleary, a former first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, who has compiled 150 goals and 204 assists with a plus-36 rating in 799 career games.

“There’s lots of guys who are playing with a chronic knee,” Babcock asserted, “that’s part of being in the league and part of playing for a long time, that’s what happens. Tomas Holmstrom has been playing with the same thing in both (knees) for a long, long time. So you have to find a way to manage it and that’s the hardest thing for a guy.”

Playing in 800 games is quite significant for Cleary, especially since the hardest part of reaching the NHL for him was staying in it. And that break came when he signed with the Wings as a free agent the day before the start of the 2005-06 season.

“All you focused on was, ‘Will I play another game? I’m I staying, will I stick around?’” Cleary said of his younger years in the league. “Then once you kind of find your niche you become an everyday player, you really don’t look too far ahead.”

If Cleary isn’t good enough to play tonight, Jan Mursak will take his place on the third forward line skating on a wing with center Darren Helm and forward Drew Miller.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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