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Dec 24, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

NHL: For former Bulldog Cleary, loyalty comes at a cost

Hamilton Spectator
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Last week, the Detroit Red Wings tuned up for New Year's Eve with an al fresco practice at Comerica Park, which Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers haven't needed since October.

It wasn't the Big House, where the Wings and Leafs will regurgitate Winter Classic clichés next week, but it served the purpose. The players seared their lungs, got a taste for skating into the wind, revisited their youth and then snapped a six-game losing streak the next night.

"A lot of guys haven't skated outdoors in this kind of venue," said Daniel Cleary, who has. "Any time you play outdoors, it brings back a lot of memories as a kid."

For the former Hamilton Bulldog, those memories are real, not inherited. He learned to skate on the frozen bogs of Harbour Grace, N.L., and played on rinks his father, Kevin, flooded, floodlit and built boards around.

And, five years ago, Cleary and the Wings played outdoors, winning the Winter Classic over the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field.

For much of the late summer, it didn't seem like Cleary would be in the game next week, or in the iconic red and white sweater at all.

He had more or less agreed to a three-year, $8.5-million deal with Philadelphia, and the Flyers had already listed him on their training camp roster when he suddenly emerged with a one-year, $1.75-million deal from the Wings in mid-September.

Yes, your math is correct. Cleary ate his own money and two years of term. He wanted to come back to the Wings and the Wings wanted him, a rare display of two-way loyalty in the bitter reality of the 21{+s}t-century salary-cap world.

"We battled all summer trying to get something done, waited patiently," Cleary told The Spectator over the weekend. "Weren't able to make any moves to get it done, because of cap issues."

The Wings originally offered Cleary a three-year deal last spring, but it involved a pay cut and he decided to test free agency. Meanwhile, the Wings pressed their noses to the salary cap by signing free agents Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss.

And the Flyers had their own cap issues, so announced that Cleary would join the team on a professional tryout offer until they could clear the money.

The end result is that Cleary, who turned 35 a week before Christmas, will be a free agent again at the end of the year. And, when the lacerated Red Wings finally get healthy, they will have way too many forwards.

"We'll see what happens now," Cleary says.

It has not been an ideal first half for the energetic right winger, as he's scored only three times and went all of November without a goal. Mike Babcock put him with different centres trying to light the offensive fire, and one night even made him a healthy scratch.

But Cleary has played well this month, contributing his usual truckload of sandpaper, speed and effective checking. He can also score — he was the Wings' second-leading scorer last post-season — but that's not his raison d'être in the NHL, although it was in junior hockey.

He brings character and an X factor that are suited to a team that, while weakened by recent retirements, knows how to maximize them.

"It's taxing on the body," he says of his style. "But I've been able to hold up so far and that's encouraging."

Encouraging enough that two prominent NHL teams thought he had three more years in him.

It's an outdated story now that Cleary didn't take the game seriously enough in his younger years, when he was viewed as a phenom.

But his wife — the former Jelena Sofrenovic of Hamilton Mountain — helped him rededicate himself to the game, and the physical maintenance needed to play it as long and as physically as Cleary has. He has often publicly thanked her for steering him in the right direction and Saturday at the Air Canada Centre he was beaming as he talked about Jelena and their two children.

They met while he was with the Bulldogs: for nine games after the parent Oilers got him in a trade from the Blackhawks in the spring of 1999, then for 58 games the next year when he tallied a whopping 74 points.

There are only two Bulldogs still playing in the NHL who were in Hamilton before Cleary arrived: Washington's Jason Chimera, who played a handful of games as a junior call-up the year before Cleary came to town; and Florida's Tim Thomas, who had been dispatched from the Dogs to Finland a couple of months before the Cleary trade.

After four years with the Oilers and a season in Phoenix, Cleary found himself without a team and arrived in Detroit in September of 2005 as basically a walk-on. He made the team on the final day.

And three years later he became the first player from Newfoundland to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Cleary wears No. 71 this season after eight Red Wing years as No. 11. Alfredsson has that now, partly because Cleary wanted him to have the number he'd worn so long in Ottawa and partly because of NHL exigencies.

"Kind of both," Cleary says. "When I signed, I had it back, but the league said it was too expensive to change back because they had so many Alfie jerseys already done for the Winter Classic."

smilton@thespec.com

905-526-3268 | @miltonatthespec

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