Former NHLer Dan Cleary still paying it forward for Red Wings

Hockey Day in Canada journeys to Corner Brook, Newfoundland, taking place on January 20th.

He’s in just his first year as the co-director of player development with the Detroit Red Wings, but it seems like Dan Cleary has found the perfect post-playing career.

Cleary’s role consists of meeting with and talking to the team’s junior, collegiate and minor-league prospects to provide training plans and positive advice.

As someone who’s experienced huge highs (he’s the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup as a player) and tough lows (in junior and early in the pros), Cleary has a wide range of perspectives.

“All these experiences can help me relate to players,” says the Carbonear-born, Harbour Grace-raised former Red Wing ahead of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada in Corner Brook, N.L. “That’s how I go about it. That’s how I think about it.”

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Counselling is part of the job, and Cleary’s history has him well equipped to handle that responsibility. His skills were put to good use last month as two WHL-based first-round picks were left off of Team Canada’s world junior roster.

Tri-City’s Michael Rasmussen, selected ninth overall last June, wasn’t even invited to selection camp. Rasmussen’s situation warranted a phone call from Cleary to ensure him he’s on the right track and still has the potential to push for a spot with the Red Wings next fall.

Dennis Cholowski, chosen 20th in 2016, was among the first wave of cuts before he was dealt to Portland from Prince George at the trade deadline. Cleary was in attendance at selection camp and took a different tact when speaking to Cholowski. The defenceman felt he should have made the team, but Cleary wanted him to know he has room for improvement.

As someone cut three times from the national junior squad while with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls, Cleary was a good resource.

“That’s an area I have great expertise in,” the 39-year-old said. “I was a good sounding board, a good guy they can talk to about it. Someone they can look to and go, ‘Well, Dan didn’t make it three years in a row.’

“There are so many guys that either don’t make the team and go on to have good careers or make the team and never play. There’s both. Adversity is important to becoming a real good pro and a long pro. I had it a lot in my younger years in the NHL.”

Cleary is known as a Red Wing. He played 609 of his 938 career regular-season games for the franchise and won the 2008 Stanley Cup there as a checking winger. Cleary brought the trophy back home to Harbour Grace for a parade in front of 40,000 people on Canada Day. Coincidentally, the ’08 final was the last one called by legendary Newfoundland broadcaster Bob Cole, something Cole informed Cleary of before Game 6 in Pittsburgh.

But before joining the Wings in 2005, Cleary bounced between Chicago, Edmonton and Phoenix after being drafted 13th overall by the Blackhawks in 1997. It took him a few years before he felt he found his footing.

“I was so naïve about the NHL, about the OHL, about my ability to play,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good enough to play with these guys who were in their 30s and 20s, superstars like Tony Amonte, (Chris) Chelios. I was like, ‘I don’t belong out here.’ That played a part in my game on the ice. I just never got any confidence.

“Then I got traded a year and a half in to Edmonton. That’s when I started to be like, ‘OK. I’m a good-enough player to play in the NHL.’”

Cleary’s lack of confidence stemmed from not truly understanding how his skills stacked up when he was growing up in Newfoundland.

It wasn’t until bantam when his team won the Atlantic championship and he was the top scorer and MVP that Cleary had any clue how good he was outside of his own province. Even then, he was mostly oblivious.

“Thank god that I had a coach with the foresight to see what was in me,” he said. “My coach was like, ‘You’re way better than these guys.’”

That coach was Dick Power, who had a contact with the Junior B Kingston Voyageurs and called to land Cleary a tryout. Cleary made the Voyageurs, was drafted 11th overall by the OHL Bulls and produced at least 80 points in each of his first three seasons in the league.

Cleary is grateful to Power for getting him his junior opportunity. He considered him like a second father and a “legend” in the community. So, after Power died at age 75 in July 2016, Cleary had a commemorative plaque erected in Harbour Grace. The plaque was unveiled last April at the arena that bears Cleary’s name.

“He was the main reason why I was able to leave Newfoundland,” said Cleary, one of 28 players from the province to make the NHL. “It wasn’t normal like it is today.”

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Cleary is now providing guidance to young players the way Power did for him.

He said he never had someone like him after being drafted into the NHL. He didn’t have someone from the Blackhawks calling to check in or to offer support if he struggled.

He’s there to explain it all now.

“All that adversity and just growing up – maturing, figuring out what it was to be a pro – that helped me have a 10-, 12-year stretch in Detroit,” Cleary said.

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