THEY CAN SEE CLEARY NOW – WAY UP THERE

There’s a rusting steamship aground in a harbor, and draped across that ship today is a banner that reads “Go Red Wings Go.” The harbor is not in Detroit. It is in Riverhead, Newfoundland, a small town in Canada – way, way north and way, way east in Canada – where Red Wings forward Dan Cleary grew up. No player from the province of Newfoundland ever has won a Stanley Cup – let alone anyone from Riverhead, whose population is listed at under 300.

Needless to say, folks are kind of proud.

“The whole community is behind Danny,” says Kevin Hiscock, the manager of the Compass Newspaper, which serves Riverhead and nearby communities. Kevin handles the business operations. He also takes photos. He took the photo of the ship.

That’s kind of how it works up there.

“Our staff is only seven people, and I have to keep my emotions balanced about Dan, you understand, given my job in journalism,” Kevin says.

Of course.

“But I’m ecstatic,” he adds.

Of course.

It’s one thing for a player to carry the burden of trying to win a Stanley Cup. It’s another to carry the weight of an entire province. There are houses in Riverhead decorated with Red Wings colors. People gather at the local rink to watch the Wings on a big-screen TV. The mayor, Cleary says, e-mails him after every game. The premier of the province has been in touch.

Oh, and Cleary’s father, Kevin, an electrician who still lives in their childhood house, has been down in Detroit so long, he says, “I might get fired when I go home.” Where everybody knows your name

There’s a story behind every name on the Stanley Cup. In some cases, the story is about a place. Should Cleary, 29, be lucky enough to get his name etched on, his story certainly would be.

Imagine a life without stoplights, without locked cars or locked front doors, a life of swimming holes and fishing boats and sunlight until late in the summer evenings and winter darkness by the time you got out of school.

Imagine knowing everyone in your town.

“Next to our house,” Cleary says, “lived my aunt. And next to them was the LeBlancs, my third cousins. And next to them were more cousins. And next to them were distant cousins …”

That’s kind of how it works up there. Cleary honed his hockey skills in a rink in his backyard. At 14, he was so good, the only answer was to leave. He took his first plane ride. It was to Toronto. Until that point, he says, “I had never seen a building higher than two stories.”

As a junior, he was considered one of the most talented teenagers on the planet. He made the NHL, fought the burden of those expectations, bounced around, and three years ago signed with Detroit, where he has found a home.

Not like his other home.

“What do tourists do in Riverhead for fun if they’re not watching hockey?” I ask Kevin, his dad.

“Look at icebergs,” he says.

Of course.

They’re ahead of our time

Cleary can mimic the strange, speedy dialect of Newfoundland. He demonstrates a phrase that sounds like “whashatbdy,” which slows to “What’s your at, buddy?” and means “How you doing?”

“Newfoundlanders fight a lot of misconceptions,” he says. “Sometimes they get called ‘Newfies’ and end up being the butt of jokes.”

(This, after all, is a province with its own time zone – 90 minutes ahead of Eastern Standard.)

“But I love it there,” Cleary says. “I have so many good friends there. And if we were to win the Cup – I don’t think I realize how big it would be. We don’t have that many people in Newfoundland as a province. To be the first would be something we’d really honor.”

Cleary already has his dream trip home with the Cup. First, a hospital. Then he’d bring it to his little town “so the kids could see it and believe that if a kid from Riverhead can do it, then I can do it.”

There’s a story behind every name and a place behind every story – even places way, way north and way, way east. Up in Riverhead, stuck on a sandbar, draped in a banner, Dan Cleary’s ship already has come in.

All that’s left is a Cup.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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