"Didn't," Babcock said. "Oh, he can skate. He came in here for a two-week tryout because [Chris] Chelios told me he was a worker. He was competing for a job with—oh, who was it? — Rem Murray.
Cleary won the job. Murray headed back to his former club, the Edmonton Oilers, then eventually played two years in Finland before signing in Austria this season.
That tryout was after the lockout season, during which Cleary played for a Swedish professional club. It was equivalent to a former blue-chip college athlete transferring to another school as a walk-on.
"We worked him to death that training camp," recalled Babcock, detailing Cleary's double shifts for nine straight preseason games. "We thought we would either kill him or he would make the team. Part way through camp it was Rem Murray's job. By the end of camp it was Cleary's."
The former first-rounder re-engineered his game to become more of a defensive forward and penalty killer during the 2005-06 season, totaling just 3 goals and 12 assists. The next season, as the Wings advanced to the conference finals, Cleary went upwardly mobile too. He moved up from the fourth line and scored 20 goals. In Detroit’s Stanley Cup season last year Cleary scored another 20 and played significant shifts with the first and second lines.
Then he took the Stanley Cup up the Newfoundland as that province’s first-ever NHL champ.
"They say in order to win you have to lose," Cleary said. "Maybe that's how I needed to go."
Cleary turned 30 the week before Christmas. He doesn't look anything close to it at first baby-face glance. But then you listen and nod. This is a guy whose parents had to drive two hours to the nearest rink for organized hockey and who learned the game on backyard rinks that didn't have much chance of melting in Newfoundland winters.
This is a guy who flipped over the boards early Thursday to the crowd's gasps, then righted the Detroit ship with sure-handed stick work to set up the tying goal. This is a guy who muffed his first Chicago chance but didn't let the second one skitter away.
This is poetic justice in the fresh, crisp January air. Every Friday, NHL.com Editor-in-Chief Bob Condor will write about players and teams on the upswing.
Author: Bob Condor | NHL.com Editor-in-Chief