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Photo: Graig Abel/Graig Abel Photography
11/04/2015 9:23 AM -

November 3, 2015

by Dhiren Mahiban -

It’s been an long time since a road trip for Daniel Cleary actually involved a road.

For the last 15 years, Cleary’s National Hockey League highway had been North American skyways, mostly aboard well-appointed, cushy chartered flights.

But these days, the Riverhead, Harbour Grace native finds himself back on the bus, the prime mode of transportation for the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, the farm team of the Detroit Red Wings.

The 36-year-old forward hasn’t played in the AHL since a 58-game stint with the Edmonton Oilers-affiliated Hamilton Bulldogs during the 1999-00 season.

“Memories certainly come back,” Cleary chuckled after riding the bus on a recent trip from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Toronto, where the Griffins played the Marlies. “But it’s been fun. It’s been a good time so far.”

Cleary spent the last decade with Detroit, becoming the first Newfoundlander to win a Stanley Cup when the Red Wings finished on top of the NHL in 2008. Only three others — Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall — had more seniority with the Wings.  Despite appearing in just 17 games last season, he re-signed with Detroit in September,  agreeing to a one-year, one-way contract worth $950,000 (U.S.). However, as the Wings finalized their roster for the 2015-16 season, Cleary found himself on the outside looking in. He was placed on waivers and after going unclaimed, the veteran of 17 NHL seasons and 938 big-league games found himself at a crossroads.

Cleary took time to weigh his options before deciding to report to the Griffins.

“I love playing hockey. I felt I’ve got some more left in the tank,” he said of his decision. “I feel fit, I feel like I’m a smart enough player to play, so I’m going to go out and play hard. I love to win, love that competitive nature, team spirit.”

He had two shots on goal in a 6-1 loss on Friday night in his Grand Rapids debut.

“He has a great attitude,” said Griffins head coach Todd Nelson. “He’s down here, he wants to play. I think he’s a really positive influence on our young players.”

While weighing his options last month, Cleary, who has played in the NHL with Chicago, Edmonton, Arizona and Detroit scoring 165 goals and 387 points, admitted he began thinking of his next career move.

“That’s crossed my mind too,” he said of life after hockey. “I’m definitely going to be working in hockey, what capacity? I’m not sure.”

Cleary relied on former Red Wings teammates Kris Draper and Chris Chelios for advice; both work in Detroit’s front office.

“They’ve been friends of mine for a number of years,” Cleary said. “We won a championship together so that bond is pretty strong and those guys have been a great sounding board for me.

Their main advice was ‘Hey, if you feel you want to play, go down and play. Just give it a try, see how it goes.’”

While with the Griffins, Nelson is hoping to utilize Cleary’s NHL experience as a teaching tool for his young hockey club.

“He’s a great resource for me. He’s been around; he’s got a lot of experience,” Nelson said. “Talking to (Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill) about Danny and he said he’s great to have on the bench because he echoes the coach’s message.

“Any time you get a player doing that, it’s really beneficial.”

Cleary’s future in the game may be uncertain, but for now, the veteran is trying to enjoy the opportunity in front of him.

“It’s an adjustment,” Cleary said of being back in the minors. “Just a different challenge. I’m excited to be here, it’s a great bunch of guys. Look forward to playing, seeing how it is.”