Daniel Cleary embraces opportunity in Grand Rapids

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — When work stops in a professional sports league, the athletes depend on themselves to maintain their sport, without coaches and the support franchises provide.

During the NHL owner’s lockout from September 2012 to January 2013 at a rink in Troy, Daniel Cleary ran things.

As the Red Wings gathered, practiced and met with the media each day in preparation for a season, and with some of the leadership of the team still in Europe, Cleary was coach, captain and public relations staff.

He organized and ran practices and served as spokesman at a challenging time, when actions, words and public perceptions were critical.

Cleary was so attentive that when rookie Cory Emmerton was approached by a pack of reporters, the veteran moved toward the encounter, smiled at Emmerton and said, “Hey, Cory. What’s up?”

Cleary’s manner spoke volumes: Careful, here, kid. It’s a sensitive time. If you want, I can handle this. I am right here.

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Emmerton did fine, and kept it short. Cleary’s presence likely helped.

Now, at age 36 (he’ll be 37 in December) and for the love of the game, Cleary toils in Grand Rapids. He might play in his first game for the Griffins on Friday against the Marlies in Toronto — 15 years after the made the American Hockey League All-Star team for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Time, the salary cap and an evolving Red Wings roster conspire against his fondest desire to continue his NHL career.

But some hockey careers are long and multifaceted, and what is already well-established around the NHL is Cleary can coach, including in the important role of managing public expectations.

For him, Grand Rapids is a place to play some more, likely on the way to many more days in hockey.

‘I love playing’

He loves hockey. He still wants to play, and he is happy to do it in the AHL.

Oh, sure, more NHL play remains a possibility. But there is other work to be done, by a tough-as-nails guy from the small, historic town of Carbonear, on Conception Bay in Newfoundland, who struggled long and hard to build an NHL career, though early disappointment and injury.

“I’m having a great time,” he said of his determination to return to the ice in the AHL.

“You know, listen, I just needed some time to think. I think I earned that right just to think anytime you’re told something — you’ve got to go somewhere different.

“So I took some time, talked to a bunch of people,” including two wise men of the game and former teammates, Chris Chelios, executive adviser to Wings general manager Ken Holland, and Kris Draper, Holland’s special assistant.

“Cheli was a big influence. Drapes was a big influence. Plus I know lots of guys down here,” Cleary said.

“You know, I just love it. I love playing. I love the preparation.

“And yeah, I wasn’t ready.

“So, I took the two-mile ride down to join them.”

It means playing at a minor league level, where his considerable value as a mentor only increases.

It means contemplating the end of a long, hard-earned NHL career as a player. But it provides a means for continuing the love affair and perhaps some final preparation for coaching.

Draper and Chelios, who have had to make their own bridge to their futures, were encouraging.

“They said ‘Listen, man, GR is a great city. They’ve got a great coach and great fans. You’ll enjoy it. Go down and see how it goes.’

“I’m here, and mentally I’m here. That’s the thing you have to do.

“You want to be a good influence. You want to be a positive influence.

“There’s nothing worse than when a guy thinks he’s too good or too big to go down and play. You want to be level-headed and, you know, a leader.”

Longtime leader

He has always been a leader.

Pressed about why Cleary was still on the roster in Detroit last season, with young potential scorers looking for a spot, Mike Babcock talked at length about Cleary the player, Cleary the man and Cleary the leader.

Finally, Babcock said simply, “He’s here because his coach wants him here, OK?”

It is likely more around the NHL feel that way about Cleary, even as a retired player.

Coaching, eventually?

“Yeah,” Cleary said. “I mean, for sure it’s an avenue.

“Obviously, I have a good relationship with Ken (Holland) and Detroit and that avenue. But I also have other avenues.

“But I don’t want to stop. I love playing.”

A first-round draft choice, 13th overall, by the Blackhawks in 1997, the start of Cleary’s career in Chicago and then with Edmonton and Arizona, was uneven and complicated by injury.

The whole enterprise seemed to be slipping from his grasp, when he got a tryout with the Red Wings in 2005. The Wings offered him a contract and he has played with them 10 seasons, all playoff years, including three 20-goal seasons.

“I certainly feel like I’ve been through my fair share of adversity,” Cleary said.

“Going to Detroit on a tryout was the hardest thing, but the best thing that ever happened to me. You know, being a Red Wing is everything I’ve ever wanted.

“And it’s given me everything I have.

“Ten or 11 great years, winning a Stanley Cup, coming close often, having a lot of good playoff runs.”

If another team, maybe one seeking a veteran playoff performer who can defend, kill penalties and offer some scoring, Cleary says he will go.

“My mindset is to be down here and play well. I’m not selfishly playing to go back up,” he said. “That takes care of itself.

“My mindset is to work hard, play well, be a good leader, let this team win.”