BY Alan Cross | AHL On The Beat Archive
It had been a long, long time since he last played in the AHL. Fifteen years, in fact.
Cleary’s path to the NHL opened up following a highly successful four-year stint with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls from 1994-98, during which he made his NHL debut after his final junior season. Cleary has skated in the NHL every season since, enjoying stints with the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes before the 2004-05 lockout.
Following the lockout, Cleary’s NHL career soared to new heights when he was invited to attend the Detroit Red Wings’ training camp on a tryout. After making the team, he went on to eventually amass 275 points (124 goals, 151 assists) in 609 career games with Detroit and helped the team win a Stanley Cup in 2008.
After setting new career highs in both goals (26) and points (46) in 2010-11, Cleary’s point production began to steadily decline as he was plagued with recurring injuries. His totals dropped from 46 to 15 in the span of just two seasons.
Following the stunted 2012-13 NHL season, Cleary was seemingly ready to depart the organization and once again resurrect his career, as he was in talks to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. His departure would mean that the over-ripe Gustav Nyquists of the world would finally get a chance to join the Red Wings full time. It made sense, considering Jeff Blashill and crew had won the Calder Cup with the Griffins just months prior.
But Cleary’s future with the Flyers wasn’t meant to be. At the last minute before training camp began, Cleary flew to Traverse City to meet with Detroit’s braintrust and was signed to an extension, much to the surprise of many Wings followers.
Since Cleary’s return to Detroit, however, he has struggled to produce. In 2013-14, he played in just 52 games due to a knee injury and notched eight points. In 2014-15, he only skated in 17 games with the team and logged one goal and one assist.
Cleary was waived by Detroit on Oct. 7 and cleared waivers the following day. He was subsequently assigned to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
It appeared as though his assignment to Grand Rapids might instead usher his immediate retirement. All reports, including those directly from Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, said that Cleary would not come to Grand Rapids, and that he would instead choose to close the curtain on his playing career.
Twelve days after his assignment, Cleary had his first practice at Van Andel Arena.
“I needed some time to think. The last time I played in the [AHL] was 2000, so I just needed some time to talk it over with the family,” said Cleary. “The main reason I came down is because I love playing hockey and I have a passion for it. I’ve heard Grand Rapids is a great city with great fans; they have a really nice club here. I’ve played with a lot of these guys in camps over the years and I see a lot of potential. I want to come down, help the team and help these young guys get to the NHL.”
On Tuesday, the Newfoundland native made his return to the league that he last saw as a young twenty-something.
“I’m trying to get in shape here, as I haven’t skated in two weeks,” said Cleary. “I’m looking to play next week (Oct. 30) in Toronto. My role is to be a good veteran, be a good leader, but also contribute and be good wherever [head coach Todd Nelson] decides to put me.”
The public is still full of questions for Cleary. What took so long? What will you bring to the team? Why not retire?
“When you’ve been somewhere for so long and all of a sudden you have to do something different, you know, I just needed some time to think,” said Cleary. “Chris Chelios was a great sounding board for me and was a big proponent of coming to Grand Rapids.
“Some decisions take longer than others, but it certainly wasn’t like I wasn’t going to report. I just needed some time to think about what I was going to do, and here I am. I’m excited to be here. I didn’t want to stop playing, that was the big thing. I want to play, I love playing.”
Of note, the newest member of the Griffins is also one of the oldest skaters in the AHL.
At 36 years old, Cleary is the second-oldest player in the league. His only elder? Fellow teammate and captain of the Griffins, Jeff Hoggan, who turned 37 in February. When addressing the topic of age in a developmental league such as the AHL, the subject is approached with trepidation.
At Tuesday’s practice, a local reporter broached the subject.
“Have you spoken with Hoggan at all? Because he’s someone who’s…”
“My age?” Cleary chuckled.
But the topic shouldn’t be taboo. For the Griffins, Hoggan’s depth of experience has proved a huge advantage in his four seasons with the team. The arrival of Cleary will hopefully double that. In a league dominated by youth, both in terms of interest and investment, Cleary and Hoggan are two players who should be able to click based on principle alone; to work together to provide a long-term impact on the future of the organization that has given them life at this stage of their playing careers.
For Cleary, this is a time to once again reinvent himself and discover his identity as a player in a new capacity.
“I’m actually excited to be here. It’s a new challenge, and I’ve been through a lot of them in my career,” said Cleary.
Every person has his or her own opinion when it comes to Cleary’s legacy in Detroit, but the fact that he has shown up in Grand Rapids and is present, active and, at this point in his career, eager to learn, is a testament to his true character not only as an athlete, but as a human being.
“My goal is to be a good leader and teammate, to play well and help this team win. I’m not worried about anything else – getting called up or going to Detroit, it’s not even going to cross my mind.”