Flashback: How Dan Cleary recovered from a drunken driving arrest to become a star Red Wing
By JO-ANN BARNAS • FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER • March 12, 2008Editor's note: This story originally published February 2007
The stick is around somewhere. His father has it now, probably stashed away back home. That's what Dan Cleary thinks.
He was a boy then, no more than 15, a kid who talked the way he walked, with a swagger, a kid with talent and the game to back it up.
So when the hockey stick arrived - a gift from Wayne Gretzky - Cleary didn't display it like some kind of iconic souvenir. No way. He cut it down to size and raced onto the ice with it in his first Ontario Hockey League game with the Belleville Bulls. He scored a hat trick. Lucky stick.
"One of the best players in the world at 16 years of age," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, recalling the first time he saw Cleary play a dozen years ago. "Talented, talented, talented."
Babcock shook his head. He remembers.
Cleary's cell phone is ringing. He looks at the number. He smiles but doesn't answer.
"Langer again," Cleary said, referring to Wings teammate Robert Lang. "I'm supposed to be giving him a ride home. He's trying to find me."
At the moment, Cleary is out of view, hunched on a folding chair in a room down the hall from the locker room at Joe Louis Arena. He's reflecting on the past, before-and-after snapshots of his life, his voice as earnest as an Eagle Scout. He's dressed head to toe in black. Lang will have to wait.
"What happened to me was I tried to figure things out on my own," Cleary said. "It just took me a bit longer to find the most important things."
Two summers ago, coming out of the lockout in 2005, Cleary was a player without a team. He was a onetime teen sensation whose reputation was built on promise until the picture faded and all that was left was a player desperate to prove he belonged in the NHL.
Now look where he is.
At 28, Cleary, a right wing in his second year with the Red Wings, is playing the best hockey of his career. No question, he said. But his confidence now is genuine and real, not the glossed-over version that marked his youth.
Stated simply, Cleary is grateful to be here. He has come full circle.
"Some of these stories are good for life," Babcock said. "You do good things, good things happen. If you cheat, you cheat yourself, and he's learned that lesson over time. He's one of those guys that have earned the right to be successful."
This season, Cleary has worked his way onto Lang's line, and he has responded with a flourish of offense: 20 goals and 36 points, both career highs, in 60 games.
His previous highs (14 and 35) were achieved in 81 games in 2000-01, when Cleary was with the Edmonton Oilers, his first full season in the NHL.
The Wings have returned home after a weeklong trip and play at home Wednesday night against Chicago and Friday against the Oilers. Like Edmonton, the Blackhawks also figure prominently in Cleary's past. They made him their top pick in the 1997 draft, 13th overall, after he scored 111 goals and 276 points in three seasons in the OHL.
Back then, there was so much buzz about the red-headed Cleary, who grew up playing on the frozen bogs of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. His first shifts were on an outdoor rink groomed by his father, Kevin Cleary, who built boards and installed floodlights for nighttime play.
Dan Cleary knew, even then, that he was good. But it was confirmed when he was 13, when his youth coach, Dick Power, told him: "It's time for you to go away."
"So I flew on my own, my first airplane ride" to Kingston, Ontario, for Junior B hockey, Cleary said. "The coach picked me up at the airport, and the first house we stopped at was Glenn Healy's, who, at the time, was a goaltender in the NHL. Things just happened for me, and I took it for granted, thinking it was going to keep happening and happening."
Wings forward Jason Williams remembers Cleary in those days. They played against each other in the OHL, when Williams was with Peterborough and Cleary was tearing it up in Belleville.
"Back then, you could tell that he was that much more far ahead than everybody else - his skating, his passing, the way he could see the ice," Williams said. "He thought the game really well and found the open player a lot of the time. He liked to chirp a little bit, but he backed it up pretty good.
"I thought he was going to eventually be a good NHL player, a star in the league, but I didn't think he was going to tear it up. Just the things I heard, that his attitude wasn't where it should be, and all the things I heard about all the special players, the first thing people say about them was that they work really hard.
"With Danny, you always heard that he had all the tools. But the work ethic wasn't really there."
* * *
When Babcock cut Cleary from Canada's world junior team in 1997, it marked the third straight time Cleary had been let go.
Looking back on it now, Cleary said Babcock "made the right decision." But Cleary didn't think so then.
"Of course, that third year, I definitely thought I should have made it," he said.
Babcock said: "He got carried away is what happened. But it just didn't happen - off-ice commitment, work ethic, pace of game."
It wasn't the only painful lesson.
In January 1998, after playing six games for the Blackhawks, the team that drafted him, he was sent to Belleville, where he was arrested for drinking and driving. He was 19.
"I had money and a car, and I was living life to the fullest, but not the smartest," Cleary said. "I was out with the guys, having a good time after a game - it's almost as if you think you're invincible, I guess. It's sad to say that you need something like that to happen to you, to kind of wake you up, but that's what happened to me. I got pulled over. Nothing good could come out of that but to learn. And I believe these experiences have truly made me a better person."
Cleary was then traded to Edmonton, an experience he didn't handle well at first, either, he said.
"When I got drafted to the NHL, I wasn't ready to play," Cleary said. "I just didn't feel like I belonged, at 18 years old. I wasn't physically mature, and I didn't have it mentally. Once I got traded to Edmonton, being traded gets to you. I had never been traded before. There were a lot of things that begin to humble you."
Cleary played four seasons with the Oilers, then hooked on with Phoenix for a year. During the lockout season of 2004-05, he played for Mora IK in the Swedish Elite League, tallying 37 points in 47 games.
By then, Cleary had found the person who has made the biggest difference in his life.
"Changed me," Cleary said.
Dan and Jelena Cleary were married June 22, 2004. They met in 1999, at a restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario, but the courtship took awhile to get started. The first time Cleary asked for her phone number, Jelena declined. Then he asked her out again. Almost a year later, she finally said, "Yes." They've been together ever since.
Jelena Cleary said she had heard stories about Cleary's past, but they didn't represent the man she married.
"I hear the stories and say, ‘Wow, you've come a long way,' " Jelena Cleary said. "He's the most organized human being in my entire life. He has these to-do lists every day that he scratches off. He has worked so hard to get to where he is right now."
Two summers ago, the couple was living in Santa Monica, Calif., working out with renowned trainer T.R. Goodman, when Cleary was invited by the Wings to training camp on a tryout. By then, with Jelena's help, Cleary had become committed to health and fitness.
That meant eliminating a few old friends from his diet - soda and Lucky Charms cereal.
"When I came to Detroit, I wanted to be a guy that the team could count on," said Cleary, who is 6-feet, 211 pounds. "I just told myself, ‘Work hard, and your skill will come out. Show Ken Holland and Mike Babcock that you're a different person than I was when I was younger. Show them that I'm not that hotshot kid anymore.' "
A couple of weeks later, Cleary called his wife with the news. He gave her the dramatic version, keeping her on the edge of her seat as he described the scene: the long walk down the aisle to the coach's office to learn his fate, how his "his heart was in his throat."
"Then he said, ‘Pack your bags, you're coming to Detroit,' " Jelena recalled with a laugh.
So everything is clear for Dan Cleary now. Babcock and his teammates love his hardworking style. He's a father now - baby Elle was born in July.
The bloom of youth might be gone, but the fun-loving part of his personality is still front and center.
Williams tells the story of a recent trip to Columbus, Ohio. A bunch of players, including Cleary, wanted to get to the arena early and called a cab. When the driver asked the group where they were heading, Williams said Cleary didn't miss a beat.
"Nashville," he said.
The players busted out laughing. More than most anyone, Cleary knows: There's always a second chance to make a first impression.
Contact JO-ANN BARNAS at 313-222-2037 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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