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Krupa: Cleary faces veterans’ cold reality

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the NHL there used to be a place on the roster for the veteran who could still perform well enough to get the job done at times, and whose experience made him an example to those still early in their careers and wise enough to help win some games.

But that was in the days before all of the big money, the salary cap and work rules obtained by the blunt force of lockout or strike, when the world seemed a gentler place.

The aging player would sometimes play every other game or so, while the young were eased into the lineup. Often enough in a bygone era coaches could use extra slots on the roster to carry older players mostly for playoff duties, getting them in enough games to keep them in playing shape and exploiting their experience when it mattered most.

Five or six years ago Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper ran smack dab into the new reality, when their careers ended before they probably would have liked under the old personnel rules and they were offered a home in management with the franchise the loved.

Daniel Cleary is at about that point.

Under the old rules, if his balky knee and 36 years afford him some quality playing time there could have been a place for him.

Now, with a waiting line of young forwards in Grand Rapids challenging Cleary, Joakim Andersson and perhaps others for spots on the roster, the odds might be longer than at any time for him as a Red Wing.

Even longer than when he arrived in 2005, eight years into a disappointing, injury-riddled NHL career, and scored three goals and assisted on 12 in 77 games.

The testament to the man is that he scored 95 and assisted on 107 over the next five seasons. In the three playoff years surrounding the Stanley Cup win in 2008, Cleary had 15 goals and 15 assists in 63 games.

Deserving a better fate

It is a rebound in a difficult career so honored in Newfoundland and much of Canada that a bursting-at-the-seams crowd gathered on June 30, 2008, at St. John’s International Airport to greet him and the Stanley Cup.

The next day, 27,000 — including 103 credentialed members of the media — assembled in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, Cleary’s hometown, when he arrived for a celebration of the Cup and Canada Day.

But that was a long time ago.

And the trouble with the new rules is, as an older player dangles, he becomes a piñata. It is not a pretty way to end things, and Cleary deserves better.

His career earned him that.

The only way to avoid the slings and arrows of the critics — and in Cleary’s case these days, there are many on social media and among the fans — is to call it a day, or play on and redeem the intention.

Cleary is not ready to stop, at least not on Sept. 26, 2015.

“No, no. God no,” he said, when asked if he considered retiring in the offseason. “I love it. I love it.

“If you don’t have it, the burning desire, then, you know, you fade away. But, of course, everyone who plays as they get older loves it. They love the preparation, game day, the training. I love all of it.

“Listen, I definitely I feel like I have given my entire body to this game, so I feel proud of that, that’s for sure. I don’t look back with any regret. I mean, you want to play as long as you can. It’s the best game.

“This game has given me everything.”

Like so often in his trying career, Cleary encountered a setback immediately this year when what he thought was a charley horse turned out to be a tear in his left quad. Now, he talks about familiarizing himself quickly with some of coach Jeff Blashill’s new drilling techniques, and playing catch-up to his classmates.

‘The knee is fine’

His chronically problematic knee that nearly cost him his career almost a decade ago and sometimes kept him out in other years?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, the knee, yeah,” he said, bowing to the frustration of the past seasons of pain and rehabilitation. “I can’t even give you a good-enough, articulate answer.

“The knee is, the knee is — it’s fine. It’s fine. I do what I can.”

What must he do?

“Ultimately, Clears has to be what he has been at times as a Red Wing,” Blashill said. “When I first got the job here as an assistant, I watched a bunch of games from the previous season and he was arguably one of the best forwards on the team.

“Obviously, that’s a number of years ago. But he’s been that, at times.

“He’s going to have to be a guy who is on the forecheck, creating turnovers. He’s going to have to be a guy who is a net-front presence. He’s going to have to be a guy who is real accountable defensively and, if he gets a chance to kill, do a good job of killing penalties.

“Ultimately, we’ll make a decision on the roster come next week, and the best players will make the team.”

Blashill said Cleary will likely play “two or three more” games in the preseason.

Many Red Wings fans are impatient to get younger players more playing time to — they believe — hasten the day when the Red Wings’ “rebuild on the fly” is complete. They think Cleary is an obstruction.

I do not begrudge Cleary’s intention, and if he does not match Blashill’s mark and is sent to Grand Rapids, his salary is off the cap.

That is not to argue that Cleary should make the roster. He says if he does not, he will have a decision to make — then, not now.

And, I do not argue whether Babcock’s desire to see a tough-as-nails Canadian player as one of the leaders on the Red Wings roster, setting an example of how to become a daily contributor and providing some toughness should or should not have trumped other roster considerations. I only say Cleary is greatly respected in the dressing room.

And there was a time when there was a place in the NHL for a guy like him.

That was honorable, just like Cleary’s career.

“I owe a lot to the city, the fans. It’s great. I love being a Red Wing,” he said.

“Everybody has doubters and people like that, even as you’re proven. You try and not let that bother you and just go out and do your thing and believe in yourself.”