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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cleary's emergence began in Sweden

Dan Cleary was on top of hockey's mountain this week. The Detroit Red Wings -- hockey's dominant franchise for the past 15 years -- targeted Cleary as a key player to be signed before he became a free agent. After months of work, the two sides agreed to a five-year contract this week worth $14 million.
Cleary had gone from coming to the Red Wings two seasons ago as a tryout to being a multi-millionaire.
The signing this past Tuesday was the culmination of years of work, years of hoping, years of not being in control of professional destiny.
The opposite moment for Cleary was likely three years ago after he finished playing his first season (2003-04) for the Phoenix Coyotes. At the end of the season, what was down Cleary's professional path were the NHL lockout followed by the Coyotes not tendering Cleary a qualifying offer, making him a free agent.
What Cleary did, however, during that span was something that directly led him to becoming an NHL success story. Anticipating the lockout, Cleary packed his bags and went to play in Sweden for one season.
"That year was really a building block for me," said Cleary of his season playing for Mora. "Offensively, it helped me a lot. It was a good stepping stone. That year, I was like 'It's time for me to make an impact in the NHL now.'"
In a season during which many of the NHL's top players skated in Sweden's Elite League, Cleary matured playing in the tiny town of Mora.
The team had been second-division the year before Cleary arrived. When he and his buddy from his days in Edmonton, Shawn Horcoff, arrived in Mora, the team was in its first season in the Elite League.
The town is described by Cleary as a one-stop light place. The team had to renovate its arena to bring its seating capacity up over 4,000.
The Elite League allowed just two North American natives per team, so Cleary and Horcoff -- who stood up in each other's weddings -- had the good idea to commit early to playing in Sweden. After Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble, Cleary and Horcoff were the first two North American NHLers to find roster spots in Sweden with the lockout looming.
Cleary and Horcoff were linemates. Horcoff finished third in the league in scoring behind Henrik Zetterberg and Kristian Huselius. Cleary was ninth in the league in assists and fourth in penalty minutes.
Mora, which featured Andreas Lilja on the blue line, picked up NHLers Marian and Marcel Hossa and Ladislav Nagy during the season.
The team hoped to stay out of the relegation zone by not finishing in the bottom two of the standings. Instead, Mora finished tied for the final playoff spot, losing out on a post-season bid on a tie-breaker.
"It was one of the best experiences I've ever had in hockey," said Cleary. "They treated us amazingly. Unbelievable. They treated us like we had been playing there for 15 years."
When Cleary and his wife returned from Mora, they had two months of waiting before Phoenix finally cut him loose. Cleary then went to camp with the Red Wings and made the team as a long-shot.
To this day, Cleary still has contact with people from Mora. He talks with the team trainer frequently. He gets e-mails from people there. Ask him about the Elite League in the third season after he left and Cleary can tell you that Mora finally fell to the relegation zone, but can stay in the top division by winning a playdown.
"I'm hoping they stay up," said Cleary, sounding like a fan.
There's a lot more connecting Dan Cleary and the Mora team than just one year spent together because of a lockout.
Like Mora, Cleary has had to work hard to stay in the big time. Like Mora, Cleary was a long-shot, who found a way in through an opening the size of the eye of a needle.
The contract that Cleary signed this week signaled that he'll be staying in the big-time for a long time. And if Mora is as much like Dan Cleary as it seems, if that team helped this Red Wing get where he is today, then I think I've found a Swedish team for which to root.


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