DETROIT – Daniel Cleary has been a healthy scratch more often than he’s been in the Red Wings’ lineup this season. But that’s OK for the 14-season NHL veteran, who wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m proud to be able to play as long as I have,” Cleary said. “I don’t know about fortunate. You put the work in and you hope that the things work out for you. I feel that I’ve done that. Listen, I love being a Red Wing, I love playing for the Red Wings. It’s been a great 10 years and I just get ready when I can, get in, and see what happens.”
Last Saturday, Cleary appeared in his 600th game in a Red Wings uniform, joining 25 other players in franchise history – including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall – to play in that many games with Detroit.
Cleary’s role has definitely changed in the nine years since signing with the Wings as a free agent in Oct. 2005. In that time he’s produced 124 goals and 275 points, was a three-time 20-goal scorer, and helped Detroit win the Stanley Cup in 2008.
Now Cleary is relegated to playing a supporting role on the ice, though his contributions in the locker room continue to be immeasurable for the Red Wings’ young team.
“He’s a big part,” said Zetterberg, the team’s captain. “If you’re not around here, you’re not around this locker room, you don’t understand how big he is, especially with a young team like this. He keeps everyone in check, even when he’s not playing he’s great to have around.”
Since making his league debut in 1997 with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that made him the 13th overall pick that same year, Cleary has been a battler. A former 50-goal scorer in juniors, he struggled to find acceptance, bouncing from the Blackhawks to Edmonton and Phoenix, before finding a permanent gig in Detroit.
Though the past few seasons have been sidetracked by serious knee injuries, he’s put in the hours of work to prepare himself for an uphill fight in order to remain viable for the Red Wings, even though it’s not always going to be on the ice. He’s been a healthy scratch 23 times – the most of any player on the Wings’ roster this season.
“I feel good,” said Cleary, who has a goal and two points in nine games. “You want to play as many games as you can, but you know, when you get in do your best and we’ve got a good team with a lot of good players.”
Many believed the Red Wings made a mistake last summer by offering a one-year contract for Cleary to come back. His critics claimed the 36-year-old forward was standing in the way of the team’s youth movement, thus preventing an up-and-coming star like highly-touted Anthony Mantha from contributing at the NHL level.
But those in Cleary’s corner don’t see it that way.
“He’s a big part of the leader group and I think it would be tough to lose him,” Zetterberg said. “Everyone was real happy that he signed a new deal this year. He always has a positive-thinking attitude in here and he works hard, and that shows the kids in here that if you want to go somewhere you have to work hard.”