Danny Cleary isn't in it for the money.
This story is for everyone who says that professional athletes are forever chasing the money. This is for those who think loyalty and sports should never belong in the same sentence.
Granted, it’s easy to roll your eyes when the newly-signed free agent says it’s not about the dough as they’re backing up a Brinks truck at the press conference. Especially when the player’s new team isn’t even close to printing playoff tickets.
If Cleary was only interested in money, he wouldn’t have driven five hours to Traverse City to beg the Red Wings for a contract.He could have hopped on a plane for Philadelphia, where an offer was awaiting his signature—an offer worth far more money than he could have hoped to get from the Red Wings.
Cleary, the gritty, resilient, hard-working forward who has been a Red Wing since 2005, saw push come to shove and when it did, he couldn’t get on that plane for Philly.
It happened a few weeks ago, and it’s the insatiable appetite for the negative that shoved Cleary’s story to the figurative back page.
It was fireman rescues kitty stuff, so naturally nobody wanted to report it, outside of Detroit.
Apparently loyalty isn’t sexy.
Cleary, a free agent after last season, nixed an initial offer from the Red Wings early in the off-season. He thought he’d try the open market.
I know this is starting out like so many other athlete-chases-money story. But the Red Wings were up against a hard salary cap and therefore couldn’t make a first offer that was quite up to par for someone of Cleary’s service and value.
Most of the money that was freed up went to new signees Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, signed from Ottawa and Florida, respectively. Both were brought to Detroit to jump start a sluggish power play and add scoring depth to the top two lines.
Cleary, 34, is a lot of things, but pure goal scorer isn’t one of them. Nor is he a premier playmaker. Alfredsson is the former and Weiss the latter.
It’s not that Cleary is a stranger to scoring goals, and it’s not that he hasn’t made a few nifty passes in his day. He’s just not a 30-goal, 40-assist man, and he never will be.
That’s OK—Cleary’s role with the Red Wings was never about that.
His game in Detroit has been 60 minutes of skating hard up and down the ice, popping in a few goals, throwing a few elbows and leading by example. It’s not score sheet fill, but it has been no less important to the cause.
The Red Wings never wanted to see Cleary go, but the reality of today’s NHL is that you can’t bring everyone back, every year. The days of GM Ken Holland breaking off another of Mike Ilitch’s checks at will are long gone.
After bringing Alfredsson and Weiss into the fold, there wasn’t much left in Mother Holland’s cupboard for Cleary. Plus, the Red Wings were at their limit as far as forwards on their roster.
The summer came and went and Cleary was having trouble finding suitors, which was a little surprising, given his resume and what he has meant to a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender every year.
Training camp was nigh and Cleary was still unemployed.
In 2008, when the Red Wings won their last Cup, Cleary played in 22 playoff games and scored two goals. Two lousy goals. He recorded one measly assist.
But take him off the team, and maybe the Wings don’t win that Cup.
Now, it might seem folly to suggest that a forward who contributed just three points in 22 playoff games is somehow indispensable, but that’s Dan Cleary. You don’t win wars with all generals, you know.
Maybe Cleary’s age scared some teams off. Regardless, it wasn’t looking good for him, until the Philadelphia Flyers showed some interest.
The Flyers offered Cleary a three-year deal worth about $7.75 million. The catch was that it wasn’t a guaranteed contract; Cleary would be brought in, officially, on a tryout basis. But there was little doubt among NHL people that Cleary would make the Flyers, who aren’t chopped liver.
The Red Wings bussed their way to Traverse City for training camp. Cleary had a plane to catch—to Philadelphia.
This is where the story changes from the typical.
Cleary’s eight years with the Red Wings tugged at him. Eight years of wearing the Winged Wheel on a player’s chest has often meant that it sinks into the heart. Never was this more true than with Cleary.
Push came to shove and Cleary couldn't get on the plane bound for Philadelphia. So he didn't.
Instead, Dan Cleary drove, on his own dime, to Traverse City—with little more than hope and an impromptu sales pitch. He wanted to be a Red Wing again.
This is not how it usually works. The free agent isn’t supposed to court the team. But Cleary couldn't go to Philadelphia, which is another team that could win the Stanley Cup this season.
He was a Red Wing, period.
Now, all he had to do was get Holland and the Red Wings to offer him a contract.
The Red Wings wanted Cleary, and Cleary wanted the Red Wings. But wanting something and getting it isn’t always possible when you’re working with a tight budget and a full roster.
Cleary and the Red Wings talked it over in the rink at Traverse City, while the signed players were skating, no doubt aware that Cleary was in the building, meeting behind the scenes.
The Red Wings offered Cleary a one-year deal, at $1.75 million—or roughly six million less than he could have earned with the Flyers, and with two fewer years of job security. No matter. He pounced on the offer like it was a loose puck.
The Red Wings didn’t have to do that. The addition of Cleary put the team at one forward too many. Someone will have to be lopped off the roster.
But this is how it goes when loyalty works both ways—when player and management each acknowledge what the other has done for them.
The Red Wings didn’t have to say yes to Cleary just because he drove up to Traverse City to ask for his old job back—especially not after it was reported that he was on the verge of signing with another team.
This one’s for loyalty and for not always chasing the money. This is for everyone who doubts that pro sports teams and players really will scratch each other’s backs—when push comes to shove.
Dan Cleary said no to the money, and yes to being a Red Wing. The team said no to convenience and yes to rewarding past performance.
How about that?