When you get right down to it, it’s pretty tough to root against a guy from Newfoundland.
Especially one trying to become the first player from his province to win the Stanley Cup after enduring some very rocky times in his career.
Dan Cleary may be riding high now, playing for the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL’s showcase showdown, but it certainly wasn’t always so.
Cleary was labeled a can’t-miss prospect in his junior days and was at one time expected to go very, very high in the 1997 entry draft. But even before his selection by an NHL club, Cleary’s stock started to falter. He watched 12 players get picked in front of him before the Chicago Blackhawks called his name at No. 13.
Doubts about Cleary’s commitment to the game certainly weren’t laid to rest in the Windy City. Cleary never played more than 35 games in a season with the Hawks and was shipped to Edmonton in 1999.
It seemed the winger had found a niche for himself in northern Alberta, as he produced a modest, but respectable, 14 goals and 35 points while playing a full season with the Oilers in 2000-01.
But that turned out to be an apparition.
Cleary just couldn’t shift out of neutral and, after a one-season stint in Phoenix, was left wondering what his post-lockout fate would be as a free agent.
Detroit, perhaps encouraged by the strong year Cleary had in Sweden during the lockout, extended a training camp invitation in 2005. Weeks later, he had a one-year deal and, basically, one last audition in the NHL nearly 10 years after he was drafted.
Cleary didn’t put up big numbers, but his sturdy play earned him a two-year contract extension in June 2006.
Then he really started to cook. Cleary hit the 20-goal barrier the past two seasons and would have gone well beyond it this year had he not suffered a broken jaw in February.
His two-way play is equal parts touch and tenacity, the style of game that always plays well in a city founded by engine grease.
Cleary signed a five-year, $14-million extension in March.
It may turn out to be a bargain for the Wings, who no doubt believe the Newfoundlander’s arrival was worth the wait.
This article also appears in the Montreal Metro Newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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