Riverhead, Harbour Grace native Dan Cleary is on the cusp of living out a childhood dream. And folks in this province just might get the chance to share in that dream if the Detroit Red Wings keep playing like they have been in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In an exclusive interview with sister newspaper, The Compass from Dallas, Texas last week, where his Red Wings were up 3-0 and just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals, Cleary knows his team is so close to playing for hockey's top prize.
Dallas Stars also went on to win game 5 in Detroit Saturday, May 17. But of course Detroit rallied Monday night past (May 19) out-shooting the Stars 4-1 to go on to the finals.
First game in the finals is this past Saturday, May 24 in Detroit.
The Red Wings are not taking anything for granted, but they have been playing so well, it would take a monumental swing in the series for Dallas to overcome the deficit.
"What can you say!" Cleary said from his cell phone after practice in Dallas. "Our club is playing well. Our leading goal-scorer, Johan Franzen, has been out of the lineup the last six games, and we haven't missed a beat."
Mentally, Cleary feels the Red Wings have benefited from the heartache experienced last year, when they were close to reaching the Stanley Cup finals, but were turned aside by the eventual champs Anaheim Ducks.
"Last year we were so close. We beat Calgary, then San Jose, we were playing well and then we ran into a tough team in Anaheim. But, that experience has paid off. In order to win in this league, you need be a little bit lucky and get some breaks and bounces, and this year so far we have been. And the focus and determination on this team is unbelievable."
Another factor that has contributed greatly to Detroit's performance in these playoffs has been the stellar play of the team's best players - most notably Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, all-world defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom and of course goaltender Chris Osgood.
"Pavel and Henrik have put us on their backs. We have been in awe of some of the things they have been doing. And Lidstrom has been a rock for so long, he's just an awesome hockey player."
"With Ozzie, his composure is just unbelievable. Before the season, he was our number two goalie behind (Dominic) Hasek, then by the all star game he had the best stats in the league. Then when the playoffs start, he's back in the number two spot again, but that changed again and we've been riding him since. All the while though, Ozzie never changed. He always worked his behind off in practice and, like with all the great players, never lost confidence in himself. He's been such a calming presence in the net."
"Every team that wins has its best players playing like the best players, and that's what we have right now."
The team also has its role players playing their roles to perfection and Cleary is definitely one of those. He is playing so dependably and logging so many quality minutes each game, no one is worried about the fact that his point production has been limited (one goal, one assist in 14 games - but top eight in minutes played).
"I guess it would be a concern if we weren't winning, but we are. That's the beauty of playing with this team. It really takes the pressure off you when you can concentrate on a defensive role first and not have to worry about scoring. There are lots of different ways to help a team win, and when you have guys scoring like we have, it does take the pressure off you."
Head coach Mike Babcock tells Cleary he will be used in any situation and that's been the case.
"I know I'm going to score some more, and hopefully sooner rather than later. But I can't get out there and force the issue. I just have to keep it simple and do my job, whatever is asked of me."
Playing primarily a defensive role, Cleary has been used all over the place, most prominently on the first penalty-kill line, the second power-play unit and anywhere else Babcock decides. In offensive situations, he parks himself in front of the net and has been doing a great job digging in the corners. On the other side of the puck, Cleary's timely hitting and all-around physical play has been just as important as Franzen's goal-scoring.
But it almost never happened. On Feb. 9 in Toronto, with several members of his family and friends from Riverhead, Harbour Grace in attendance, Cleary took a puck on the chin on a blast from teammate Mikael Samuelsson and suffered a broken jaw. Immediate surgery was successful, but it did leave Cleary out of the line-up for 19 games, saw him lose 15 pounds and threatened his chances of regaining his form.
"The injury took a lot out of me, not going to lie. My whole lifestyle changed for two weeks. For the first week, I didn't get out of bed. The next week took a little trip with my family. It was difficult. When you can't eat nothing but liquid, it really screws things up."
Prior to the injury, Cleary was a force for the Red Wings, both offensively and defensively, and the Red Wings rewarded him with a five-year contract extension on March 11 that is worth $14 million.
After a couple of split seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks to start his NHL journey in 1997, Cleary spent four seasons in Edmonton with the Oilers, before hooking up with Phoenix for one season. A lock-out year spent in Sweden's elite league was followed up with an uncertain time for Cleary where an invitation to a tryout camp with Detroit turned into a "home" for the former junior star with the Belleville Bulls.
Despite the injury, Cleary was determined to get back on the ice, and worked his tail off to make it so. As soon as he was allowed he was back working out, then back on the ice. But admittedly, it took a while for him to regain his form.
"Really, it's been the last six games in the playoffs that I've been feeling close to what I was before the injury."
The face-mask, styled after that used by a place-kicker in football, has been attached to Cleary's helmet since he returned to the ice. He doesn't like using it, but he has no choice if he wants to play.
"It's a win-lose situation. I wear it, and I can play. I can play better without it, but if I get hit, I'm out of the line-up. It's really hard to see the puck at your feet, but I've adjusted. A couple of high sticks have hit the shield, so it has definitely saved me."
While the nature of his return home has not been decided (he may come home as the first person from Newfoundland and Labrador with his name engraved on the Stanley Cup), Cleary will be heading home to Riverhead this summer. He's looking forward to the trip, and hopes it will be an extra special occasion.
With young daughter Elle and wife Jelena, Cleary's off season is a busy one, and life as a professional hockey player sometimes makes it hard to spend time back home.
"It's not easy not getting home, and it's not easy coming home - if you know what I mean. Life is hectic. Hopefully we get that chance to play for the cup, and if all goes well, I'm sure we'll be doing something special in Riverhead this summer."