Cleary would take another season in the minors

Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News

Detroit — Dan Cleary admits some of the days and nights were awfully difficult last season.

Cleary hadn’t played minor-league hockey since 1999 before being waived and sent to Grand Rapids by the Red Wings before last season began.

The long bus rides, or returning from Grand Rapids after games, all left plenty of time to think.

“I’d be driving back and thinking to myself, ‘What in God’s green earth are you doing?’ ” Cleary said.

But know what? Cleary, 37, wouldn’t mind playing some more hockey, serving a similar role to that he had last season, and is leaning in that direction again.

Now it’s just a matter of some organization — maybe the Red Wings? — giving him that chance.

“I really enjoyed what I did last season, being in that role, helping the young kids grow into being future Red Wings,” Cleary said. “I’m training to do that (playing). It took me a few days (after being sent down), but after I settled into it, I really enjoyed the experience in Grand Rapids. It’s a great coaching staff, great group of guys, great training staff.

“It was a lot of fun, and I still want to play. The thing is, though, is can this body hold up over the course of a season? But I feel I can help mentor young players, and show them what it takes to play in the NHL.”

Cleary completed a one-year contract that paid him $950,000 last season.

The Red Wings haven’t contacted him about returning, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Cleary were to return to Grand Rapids in a similar role given the positive reviews the front office had of Cleary’s role with the Griffins last season.

Cleary sees himself as an assistant coach or in a scout or front office role once he’s done playing.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

“I am, and always will be, a Red Wing at heart,” Cleary said.

Cleary certainly showed that in September 2013 when he turned down multi-year contracts with Philadelphia and Florida to return to the salary cap-strapped Red Wings on a series of one-year contracts.

Cleary’s offensive production fell after he re-signed with the Red Wings — he had one goal in 17 games in 2014-15 — and a handful of young forwards passed him on the depth chart last training camp.

“It’s a decision I made with my heart, I wanted to be in Detroit and remain with the Red Wings,” Cleary said. “I don’t look back. I don’t live that way.”

Playing in the AHL last season was difficult in some ways, but Cleary gained new respect for what the young players go through at that level.

“I told the guys before Game 1 of the (AHL) playoffs what kind of respect I had for them,” said Cleary, whose family remained in Detroit while he commuted back and forth from Grand Rapids. “When you finish a game and you know have a 13-hour bus ride to Des Moines the next morning, it’s not easy, let me tell you.

“I gained a whole new appreciation. But I love to play, and I love the fact I could be a part of preparing some of these young guys to the NHL.”

In 35 games last season in Grand Rapids Cleary had three goals and 12 assists for 15 points, with a plus-9 rating. In nine playoff games he didn’t have a point and was minus-2.

“I still love to play, I want to keep playing,” Cleary said. “There’s a great bunch of young players in Grand Rapids who will someday play in the NHL, be part of the Red Wings. It was great to be part of that group and be able to work with them.”