Nearly three weeks ago, when the 46 invitees to Hockey Canada's Olympic orientation camp were announced, the least anticipated name on the list, without question, was Detroit Red Wings' forward Daniel Cleary.
Despite being fresh off of an impressive showing in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, many people's initial reaction was to scoff at the notion of a man who took nearly eight seasons to carve out his niche in the NHL would be accompanying a Canadian dream team to the most highly-regarded and prestigious of international tournaments.
But is it really that far-fetched to think that we'll see Cleary suit up at the next Olympic Games?
While the 11-year veteran still has a ways to go to prove himself completely worthy, and with only a small window of opportunity in which to do so, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that he'll be donning the red and white in Vancouver in just seven months.
Perhaps the greatest indicator currently working in Cleary's favour is history.
Taking a trip backwards on the time line, we end up in 1996 at the World Cup of Hockey. At every major international tournament that has featured NHL talent since then (save for the annual IIHF World Championship), no matter which names made up Canadian management, each final roster has featured at least one player that falls outside of the typical all-star mold—usually, a utilitarian player, like a two-way forward or a defensive defenceman.
Basically, someone who can create a presence of stability at both ends of the ice and come through in the clutch, while still providing some sandpaper against the opposition.
The first two names in this movement were defencemen Sylvain Cote and Lyle Odelein—heralded more for their defensive prowess, rather than their flash-in-the-pan offensive abilities—in limited time at the '96 World Cup. Before long, the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics rolled around, and Rob Zamuner was given the defensive dossier for Canada's forward corps.
Similarly sticking out like sore thumbs were Red Wings' grinders Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, who surprised everyone by not only making the team, but achieving regular roles in Canada's lineup at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. And, need I remind everyone, that team did win gold.
It seems doubtful, at this juncture, that Canada would suddenly start rolling four scoring lines against some of the most dangerous hockey nations on ice. So if it's a defensive assignment that Steve Yzerman and company are after, perhaps Dan Cleary fits the bill—even more so, considering that he plays with both Draper and Maltby and I'm certain he's learned a thing or two from them.
Another major factor (though one that I don't consider to have as much of an influence as it would appear on the surface) is the blatantly obviously Detroit Red Wings connection.
With Wings' Vice President Steve Yzerman putting together the Canadian roster, and Wings' head coach Mike Babcock in charge of running the bench, it would seem, at face value, that this came into play when it was decided that Cleary would attend selection camp in the first place.
While it could look awfully suspicious for Cleary to end up on the final roster based on this fact, remember that Babcock and Yzerman have personal experience in working with Cleary, and that any decision would have to be assumed in good faith because of their familiarity with the player.
Of course, while circumstance and trends will be instrumental in determining Cleary's place on Canada's roster, the man himself must still do his part to etch out his position on the team's depth chart.
Though Cleary's last two seasons in particular have far removed him from being the one-dimensional third-line scorer that could only dream of the days putting up 80 plus points in Junior-A, the hype around him really seems to surface mostly around playoff time.
While his postseason heroics would be a valuable asset in a tournament where every game is a battle for survival, Cleary will need to come storming out of the gate at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, in order to not only re-affirm that he can be equally effective in regular season play, but to keep himself fresh in the minds of Canadian management.
Fortunately for Cleary, the odds could be in his favour. His role with the Red Wings will most definitely increase this year, as he will find himself in top-six territory due to the offseason departures of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky, and Mikael Samuelsson.
Despite everything that Daniel Cleary has going for him, does this necessarily guarantee that we'll see him step onto the ice at Canada Hockey Place on Feb. 16?
But amongst everything else, with the right start to the year and a solid showing at orientation camp, don't be surprised if he ends up being a clear choice for Team Canada.
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