Having Newfoundlander Ryane Clowe behind the bench of a professional hockey team in St. John’s meant everything to the local community, says former NHL forward Dan Cleary.
Cleary, who’s from Harbour Grace, N.L., said he was sad to see the 36-year-old Clowe step down as head coach of the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers on Thursday due to persistent concussion symptoms from his playing career.
"It just sucks for everybody involved," he said. "It just breaks my heart to see Clowey and how it’s affecting his well being."
Cleary now works in player development with the Detroit Red Wings and was among the many Newfoundlanders excited to see the St. John’s native coaching in the Growlers’ inaugural season this year. The Growlers are an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a league that’s seen as a step below the American Hockey League.
"I think the whole province was excited, just to have pro hockey back, to have (Clowe) at the helm," he said in a phone interview from Grand Rapids, Mich.
When Cleary was growing up, his local pro team was the St. John’s Maple Leafs, then the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate.
He remembers driving 45 minutes into town and watching Felix Potvin play between the pipes.
"For me, it was always the St. John’s Maple Leafs. That was the team that I followed and watched and looked up to and all that kind of stuff," said Cleary, who went on to spend spent 17 seasons in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008.
After the Maple Leafs left, St. John’s hosted — and eventually lost — other hockey teams, including another AHL team (Ice Caps) and a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise (Fog Devils).
The sport has a big role to play in Canada’s eastern-most province, said Cleary, who returns to St. John’s every summer to host his hockey school.
He grew up playing on the frozen ocean after school and spending weekends in rinks with friends and family.
"Hockey’s a huge part of the culture and of people coming together and of celebrating. Newfoundland’s a great place to grow up, to play hockey in," he said.
News that an ECHL club would set up shop in St. John’s starting in 2018 was met with excitement.
The Growlers ascended to third place in the league’s standings under Clowe’s leadership, posting a 27-11-2 record.
The coach took a leave of absence before Christmas and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said in a statement on Thursday that Clowe would leave his post immediately for "medical reasons."
Assistant coach John Snowden will fill the position and Clowe will remain in the Leafs organization in a yet-to-be determined role.
"I’d like to thank the Toronto Maple Leafs for the opportunity to become the first head coach in Newfoundland Growlers history," Clowe said in a statement. "As a St. John’s native, I was extremely honoured and proud to have held this position but my health is first priority for both my family and I."
The left-winger spent 11 seasons in the NHL, playing with the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils before retiring in September 2015 when doctors would not clear him following a concussion.
He was known for his size and skill, and as a tough player with a good set of hands who could score and make plays, said Cleary, who played many games against Clowe.
The pair also know each other on a personal level, Cleary said, in part because Clowe is married to Cleary’s third cousin.
"I know what kind of person he is, I know his work ethic. He was all-in on (the Growlers)," he said. "He’s such a passionate guy, he’s a hard-working guy."
But head injuries can be devastating.
While most people recover from a concussion within a week to 10 days, some develop post-concussion syndrome where symptoms can last from months to years, said Paul Van Donkelaar, who studies concussions at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
Post-concussion syndrome can happen from a single head impact, but is more common in people who’ve had concussions before, he added.
The symptoms could include headaches, difficulty concentrating, nausea, and sensitivity to light or sound.
"The classic story is someone who has symptoms that last for the remainder of their life or aren’t responsive to a variety of different treatments," Van Donkelaar said.
"If they’re persistent, that can actually have a significant impact on a person’s life, reduce their ability to hold down a job or continue in a job … because it’s just too much on the system to expose yourself to the stress of any job when it may exacerbate these symptoms."
Researchers are looking into treatment for people suffering long-term concussion symptoms, he added, and there’s new work suggesting that physical activity may play a part.
Head stuff is the "real deal," said Cleary.
"I’ve got a real bad shoulder, I’ve got a real bad knee, but I can still go about my every-day life and live, and live normal to a certain extent," he said.
Despite Clowe’s departure, Cleary expects the Growlers to continue their success in St. John’s.
The team isn’t without local players to cheer for, he noted. Four players hail from the Rock, including Zach O’Brien, who’s second in points for the team with 15 goals and 20 assists in 28 games.
"I think it’s important to have hockey in Mile One Centre," said Cleary. "It’s a great venue, it’s a great place. St. John’s is a terrific city."