It takes a village, actually - Macleans.ca
 

It takes a village, actually

Daniel Cleary was the first Newfoundlander to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup, thanks in large part to his childhood coach Dick Power


 

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“You don’t think about what you’re going to do or how you’re going to feel when you win the Stanley Cup,” explains former Detroit Red Wing Daniel Cleary. “You don’t want to think prematurely.” Cleary was one of the six Red Wings on the ice when Detroit beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup final. As he took his victory lap with the Cup, Cleary couldn’t help but think of home and, in particular, his minor-league hockey coach Dick Power. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had this . . . where something great happens and your brain starts thinking of people you want to thank,” Cleary says. “Dick Power was one of the first ones I thought of.” When a TV reporter pulled Cleary aside to talk about the fact that he was the first Newfoundlander to win the Cup, Cleary instinctively replied: “I’d like to thank Dick Power—my dad and mom and Dick.” Amid all the excitement, an NHL hero’s childhood coach got not one, but two mentions.

Cleary grew up in a small Newfoundland village. “In Riverhead,” he says, “there’s no stop lights, no stop signs, it’s mostly just my dad’s family.” He spent his childhood riding four-wheelers and ice-skating. “We had this little bog area that froze over,” he says. “My dad created a backyard rink; he’s an electrician, so he put a big floodlight up on the house and my brother and I played hockey all day and all night.” He started playing minor hockey at five years old in nearby Harbour Grace—famous for being the place where Amelia Earhart began her journey across the Atlantic. Power managed the Harbour Grace arena and happened to sign up to coach the five-year-olds the year Cleary started playing. Power stuck with the team until a 14-year-old Cleary left to play Junior B in Kingston, Ont. Looking back on it, Cleary isn’t sure what compelled Power to follow the team all those years. “It could have been Danny [Daniel Cleary],” says Elizabeth Power, Dick’s wife. “We had two girls; we always said Danny was our adopted son.” Power died on July 4, 2016, at the age of 75.

Power was a legendary defenceman for the Conception Bay CeeBees in the late ’60s, scoring the province’s first Allan Cup goal, before eventually settling in as a minor-league coach in Harbour Grace. Under Power’s guidance, Cleary’s team rarely lost. “Dick was like Newfoundland’s Gordie Howe,” says Cleary, “a great hockey player, great coach—he won everything. He fell out of bed with charisma.” Power saw talent in Cleary from an early age. “He could see the ice and read the ice and the determination was there to work hard,” Power told the Globe and Mail in 2008. “He could see his players and feed them the puck. You could see the potential. But he didn’t like to skate.” Power became close with the Cleary family and at times went out of his way for the young star, sometimes without anyone knowing. “I had bad growing pains,” says Cleary. “I would cry at night. And I remember I outgrew my skates in one season—I could barely get my feet in. Then one day I just had new skates. They were Micron Mega skates and they were amazing. They were from him—but I didn’t know that at the time.”

While Power was dedicated to Cleary and his teammates, he didn’t go easy on them. As they got older, he had them bring their report cards and test scores to his office, barring them from practice if they had bad marks. Power made the kids wear a tie to games, and ran very early morning practices, even though he managed the local arena and could have booked the ice at any time. The boys would complain when they got to school, Elizabeth says—she was also their sixth-grade teacher. “They called down my husband right to the dirt because he gave them a hard practice. I just listened and smiled to myself. They got out a few of their frustrations that way.” But even Elizabeth felt, at times, he went too far. “I could hear Dick on the phone with Danny, and sometimes he was so negative. It really bothered me. But he felt he had to make Danny angry—when he did, he got the best hockey from him.”

Cleary agrees that Power knew which buttons to push. “But I never thought he was so hard or wished there was another coach,” he says. “He was my coach, and the bond was just there.” While Power enjoyed moulding these young men, he was also in it to win. He was sly. “He used to do things during games that you’d never get away with now,” says Corey Crocker, Cleary’s friend and childhood teammate. “Changing helmets and jerseys so the other team couldn’t shadow Danny and I, changing goalies on the fly. He tried to beat the system any way he could—and he did most times.”

The team was a threat—even when going up against squads from bigger cities like St. John’s and Corner Brook. “Playing in Newfoundland is different than playing in Ontario,” says Cleary. “You can’t get on or off the island without a boat or airplane. There were no scouts watching midget hockey in Newfoundland.” That’s the reason Power went to Cleary’s parents, Kevin and Janet, when their son was 14 and said, “Danny has outgrown the province.” They were a little surprised because hockey hadn’t dominated their lives. “He played on Team Newfoundland for basketball,” says Kevin, “and he played soccer and softball. Matter of fact, he was a really good table tennis player.” But they also knew he was exceptional at hockey, and it would offer opportunities. So with mixed emotions they let him go—first to Kingston and then to Belleville, Ont.—making sure they visited often. “We felt he had to try it,” recalls Kevin, “and it worked out.”

Cleary became an Ontario Hockey League all-star while playing for the Belleville Bulls, and was the Chicago Blackhawks’ first-round pick in the 1997 NHL draft. In Chicago, he didn’t see much action, but he found a mentor in Chris Chelios. “He didn’t really get a chance to play because we had a pretty good team, a pretty deep team,” says Chelios. “He never got an opportunity.” Cleary blames himself for his underwhelming debut. “I was this cocky young kid, but I didn’t have a clue what the NHL was about, about work ethic, about character, all the habits you need.”

Over the next five years, he bounced around—from American Hockey League teams to the Edmonton Oilers to the Phoenix Coyotes, and even a year in Sweden during the NHL lockout—never putting up the numbers expected of him. “Any time in my career there was a crossroads, choice, adversity, the same number would come up on my phone,” says Cleary. “Dick never gave up on me. Even if he didn’t say it, I knew he was my biggest fan.” Elizabeth can attest to that. “He’d put on quite an act, but I know the real Dick Power. He’d be watching hockey in the living room and Danny would have a good game and I’d see Dick with tears in his eyes. He would look at me and say, ‘God, I’m so proud of Danny Cleary.’ ”

Heading into the 2005-06 season, Cleary was a free agent and likely only had one shot left to prove himself in the NHL. Chelios, who was now a Detroit Red Wing, put in a good word. Cleary was invited to the Red Wings training camp, but it wasn’t a done deal. Coach Mike Babcock had cut Cleary from the world junior team years before, and it would be a tough sell. “He wanted this really bad,” says long-time Red Wing Kris Draper, who first met Cleary at training camp. “Coming into Detroit, we had established players: Henrik Zetterberg, Chelios, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and [Steve] Yzerman. Cleary probably could have picked somewhere else to give himself a better chance. But he believed in his abilities—he just wanted an opportunity.” Cleary worked his way up from fourth line to first and became one of Babcock’s go-to guys on both the power play and penalty kill.

Cleary shared all of his success in Detroit with his family and friends in Newfoundland. “When I was teaching, I had a photo of Steve Yzerman on my classroom door,” says Elizabeth. “It bugged the boys like nothing else, because they were all Maple Leafs and Montreal fans. When Danny was signed to Detroit, he called me and said, ‘I know one lady in Harbour Grace who is pretty happy today.’ I didn’t even have to change my colours.” Not long after, Elizabeth received a signed Yzerman jersey in the mail. She still marvels, “Can you believe what he did for me?”

Cleary, 38, now lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and plays for the Grand Rapids Griffins—the Red Wings’ farm team—but plans to retire in June. When he looks back on his 19-year pro career, he attributes much of his success to Power and his upbringing in small-town Newfoundland. So he takes every opportunity to go back—and give back. Cleary established a scholarship at Memorial University, runs a two-week hockey school every year in Paradise, N.L., and he brought the Stanley Cup home for 48 hours on Canada Day in 2008.

First stop was the Janeway children’s hospital in St. John’s, then they drove the Cup an hour to his family’s house in Riverhead, accompanied by round-the-clock security guards. It wasn’t necessary, says Cleary: “I live in a community where we leave all doors open—the next house over is Aunt Linda, and next to that is Aunt Debbie, Uncle Ron.” The next morning, there was a parade through town ending in a field party, where close to 30,000 people gathered to take photos with the Cup—and Cleary. “He gives back,” says Crocker, who also manages Cleary’s summer hockey school. “He brought the Cup home and barely spent any time with it. People were taking pictures all day, festivities, speeches. He was beat tired. And the next morning it was gone.”

Last year, Cleary returned to Harbour Grace to speak at Dick Power’s funeral and was back again in March to unveil a bronze plaque of Power that Cleary had commissioned—modelled after the ones that hang in the Red Wings’ dressing room honouring the likes of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. The plaque hangs in the lobby of the new Danny Cleary Harbour Grace Community Centre, which houses the town’s arena. “I wanted this plaque to be a form of inspiration for the kids who come through the door,” says Cleary. “ ‘That’s Danny’s coach, and Danny was able to go on and play in the NHL—and maybe one day I could do that.’ ”

While other Newfoundlanders have vied for and won the Stanley Cup since Cleary, he will always be the first. The morning after the Detroit Red Wings made it to the final, Elizabeth Power walked into a kitchen full of red and white lights. She recalls asking her husband, “Dick, what are you doing?” And he said: “Listen, our boy got into the finals, that’s good enough for me. Everyone in Harbour Grace is going to know that Danny Cleary is playing for the Stanley Cup.” Elizabeth couldn’t help but agree: “We lit the whole house up.” The night Detroit won, Cleary called Power from the team bus in Pittsburgh. The coach’s words of congratulations were simple, but heartfelt: “Geez, what a job.”

For a video of Daniel Cleary, and other profiles from the Power of Play series, visit Powerofplay.sportsnet.ca


 

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