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Danny Cleary makes a unique exit as a player

The Grand Rapids Griffins, including Newfoundland’s Daniel Cleary (second row, third from the left) celebrate around the Calder Cup after beating the Syracuse Crunch to take the AHL championship Tuesday night in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The Grand Rapids Griffins, including Newfoundland’s Daniel Cleary (second row, third from the left) celebrate around the Calder Cup after beating the Syracuse Crunch to take the AHL championship Tuesday night in Grand Rapids, Mich.

He was in his full uniform and wore his skates. He sported a classic playoff beard. And he was pretty much front and centre — just a couple of players away from the Calder Cup — as the Grand Rapids Griffins posed for the traditional on-ice champions photo after they won the 2017 American Hockey League crown Tuesday night in central Michigan.

But even though Danny Cleary looked very much like the other Griffins beside and behind him, perhaps no other player on the team had such a unique story.

Daniel Cleary might be retiring as a player, but it doesn’t mean his career in hockey is going up in smoke.

And not just because the Riverhead, Harbour Grace native is retiring as a player after 20 seasons as professional, or that he had appeared his first NHL game in the fall of 1997 when Grand Rapids teammate Evgeny Svechnikov was less than a year old.

The big story is that Cleary was such an important member of the team’s roster without having actually played a game in 2016-17. Not in the regular season. Not in the playoffs. And even though he is admittedly battered and creaky after two decades, it wasn’t because of injury.

Nope. There has never been an exit quite like this one.

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“It was different, but it’s been great experience, just awesome, and this (the Calder Cup win) was a great way to end career,” said Cleary, who spent the entire season as sort of an unofficial assistant coach for the Griffins, practising with the team regularly, but never seeing any ice time in games.

“I could have played during the season, but we had plenty of other veterans and I didn’t want to take away time for young players. Anyway, I just felt I had already played enough games.” said Cleary, who appeared in over 1,100 professional games, including 938 in the NHL, mostly with the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2008.

Instead, the 38-year-old Cleary became a ready resource and a sounding board for the younger Griffins.

“Mainly, I just wanted to show how to be a good pro,” he said. “But I also tried to be someone they could talk to when they found things were going a bit sideways, and then when things were going good, to help them stay in that positive frame of mind.”

Cleary joined the Griffins — the Red Wings’ farm team — in 2015-16 and played 35 games, but also began assuming what became a full-time role this season.

He’s been given particular credit for the development of Griffins’ second-year forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who was named the Calder Cup MVP after Grand Rapids defeated the Syracuse Crunch in Game 6 of the final on home ice Tuesday.

“That was probably the greatest feeling, seeing Bert win the MVP,” said Cleary. “I don’t know if you can say I took him under my wing last year, but he was someone I certainly focused on. He’s the nephew of a good friend of mine (former Detroit teammate Todd Bertuzzi) and so I made it a point to be a friend to him and to help him where I could.

“He’s a great player and a great kid. He just burns for it out there. He made great strides as a player and it’s off to the NHL now for him.”

His teammates’ respect for Cleary’s somewhat unorthodox role was never more evident than immediately after the Calder Cup was presented to Griffins captain Nathan Paetsch by AHL president Dave Andrews. Cleary was the fourth player to get to hoist the trophy and skate with it around the ice.

“I really appreciated that and it just helped cap off what has been a great experience the last two years,” he said.

“It’s been good stepping stone for the next phase of my career.’

Cleary has indicated he wants to stay in the game in some capacity. Whether that’s coaching, scouting, player development or something else remains to be seen.

He isn’t stating a preference outright, although he might have provided a clue.

“It was just great to see how things work down here. It’s just a different dynamic,” he noted. “I have really been planning for this for a couple of years and it’s been a couple of years of helping in players’ development I guess you could call it.

“I got a good feel for the players in the organization. It’s never too old to learn and I learned a lot.”

He’s been part of the Red Wings’ organization since 2005 and says he would like to maintain that status.

“I’ll speak to Ken (Detioit general manager Ken Holland) in the next little while and see what he thinks and what he wants,” said Cleary.

However, he says there are options outside the Wings organization.

“Yeah, without getting into detail … yes, there are,” he said.

 

bmcc@thetelegram.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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