It’s a good thing the Red Wings have a game today. Otherwise, Dan Cleary’s skates might never touch the ground.
Several days after the toughest series many of the Wings can remember, Cleary still is flying from being the man who scored the final goal. Actually, he shoved, poked and jammed that puck under Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller with 3 minutes left in Game 7. He didn’t even see it cross the line.
“I got pushed back and was falling,” he said. “But I knew it went in from the noise.”
Cleary landed on the ice and never felt the impact. “When something like that happens, someone could be slashing you all over and you wouldn’t feel it.”
Remember. This is a guy who knows about exultation. Last year, Cleary singlehandedly carried the hopes of an entire Canadian province on his shoulders. Newfoundland had never had a Stanley Cup winner. In his tiny hometown, a steamship that ran aground in the harbor was draped in a “Go Red Wings Go ” banner. His progress was front-page news in the local newspaper. He was getting daily e-mails from the mayor.
When the Wings finally won it all, Cleary officially became the most famous player from one end of the province to the other.
I don’t want to say it was a big deal up there. But you didn’t want to be the TV station that didn’t carry the game.
Cleary became a folk hero in a global fashion. When he brought the Cup home, there were more than 100 media members chronicling his visit. I think that increases the normal media total by about 100.
The countdown for Newfoundland
“Anytime something happens for the first time, excitement is high,” Cleary says now. “This year we had three guys from our province in the playoffs, Ryane Clowe in San Jose, Michael Ryder in Boston and me. But it turns out I’m the last man standing. So everyone in my hometown is happy. It’s like having the bragging rights.”
How do you like that? In one year, it’s every little fishing town for itself.
Which does not mean things have quieted down in the otherwise quiet hamlet of Harbour Grace, where Cleary grew up with no stoplights, no locks on doors and no precedent for becoming a Cup champion. During Game 7 on Thursday night, the TV was blasting in his parents’ house; by Cleary’s estimate there were about 30 people jammed inside. When “Danny”- as he is known back home – put that puck under Hiller, the windows could have blown out from the cheering.
“By the time I called up there, it was like 30 people tried to get on the phone at once. It was so noisy you could barely get a word in.”
“Of course, the beer was flowing pretty freely.”
Better stats than last season
But here’s the thing about Cleary; he’s not just about geography anymore. After 11 playoff games in the first two rounds, he leads the Wings with a plus-10 rating, which is second in the league. He already has nine points compared to three points in twice as many playoff games last year.
More important, at 30, Cleary is an endless churn of energy, always digging, charging, throwing himself into checks. He had the unenviable task of trying to stop Ryan Getzlaf’s line in the Ducks series, a job that would have left Superman banged up.
“By the seventh game, we were sick and tired of each other,” he said. “It felt like I was constantly bickering with Getzlaf and Perry and constantly trying to hit them. We’d score. They’d score. Pronger hates me. Niedermayer hates me.”
Ah, but everybody else loves him. Cleary has cemented himself into Red Wings lore. And if this year turns out to be another Cup hoist, his tiebreaker the other night will be shown in replays more often than the Beatles at Shea Stadium.
Which, for a small-town guy like Cleary, must be what all this feels like. Noise. Cheering. People yelling his name. There’s a book about Cleary you can order on the front page of his hometown paper. Last summer, he was chosen to help select a new theme for “Hockey Night in Canada” with, among others, Jason Priestley of “Beverly Hills 90210” fame.
What’s next? “Dancing with the Stars?”
“Nah, bad knee,” Cleary said. “And I’m a lousy dancer.”
Right. Then again, he wasn’t supposed to be a playoff hero, either.