Actually Crymson is right. I remember reading that he attributed his attitude change to his wife and the situation he was in (no one wanted to sign him). When Chelios convinced the Wings to give Cleary a shot in training camp he was already determined to work his ass off. No doubt the Wings locker room was a stabilizing influence, though.
"I came back from Mora in Sweden during the lockout and the Coyotes let me know that the last year of my contract with them had run out," Cleary remembered. "I was at kind of a crossroads in my life. I was out of a job ... and I didn't know if that meant hockey was over or not." In June 2004, Dan married his sweetheart, Jelena, who quickly became his positive influence on life. He was out of work, with the responsibility of providing for a new wife, and a lot was going on in his mind.
"I began to realize what people say when their back is against the wall with no place to turn to," Cleary said. "I had no idea what might happen. I had thoughts of what I might do if hockey was over. But Jelena told me to put my most positive foot forward. Give it my best."
It also didn't hurt that while working out in California with defensemen Mathieu Schneider and Chris Chelios in the summer of 2005, those two put in a good word with him Red Wings and he got a tryout. But there were no promises. Cleary would have to earn a contract.
"I remember that I was just trying to fit in," he recalled. "I started out on the fourth line with Johan Franzen and Mikael Samuelsson. We were all just role players then. Heck, we're all still role players. But there's nothing holding any of us back ... if we can prove we can play a better role.
"The way it works here is that good players get better and great players get greater. That's what happens when you're surrounded by good players. It just brings out the best in you and everyone blends right in. And there's more to your role. You don't have to worry about scoring ... just play your game. If you play a good two-way game, the offense will come. You just have to prepare to work hard to fit in here. I'm not kidding when I say coming to Detroit is the best second chance I could have gotten."
When Babcock cut Cleary from Canada's world junior team in 1997, it marked the third straight time Cleary had been let go.
Looking back on it now, Cleary said Babcock "made the right decision." But Cleary didn't think so then.
"Of course, that third year, I definitely thought I should have made it," he said.
Babcock said: "He got carried away is what happened. But it just didn't happen - off-ice commitment, work ethic, pace of game."
It wasn't the only painful lesson.
In January 1998, after playing six games for the Blackhawks, the team that drafted him, he was sent to Belleville, where he was arrested for drinking and driving. He was 19.
"I had money and a car, and I was living life to the fullest, but not the smartest," Cleary said. "I was out with the guys, having a good time after a game - it's almost as if you think you're invincible, I guess. It's sad to say that you need something like that to happen to you, to kind of wake you up, but that's what happened to me. I got pulled over. Nothing good could come out of that but to learn. And I believe these experiences have truly made me a better person."
Cleary was then traded to Edmonton, an experience he didn't handle well at first, either, he said.
"When I got drafted to the NHL, I wasn't ready to play," Cleary said. "I just didn't feel like I belonged, at 18 years old. I wasn't physically mature, and I didn't have it mentally. Once I got traded to Edmonton, being traded gets to you. I had never been traded before. There were a lot of things that begin to humble you."
Cleary played four seasons with the Oilers, then hooked on with Phoenix for a year. During the lockout season of 2004-05, he played for Mora IK in the Swedish Elite League, tallying 37 points in 47 games.
By then, Cleary had found the person who has made the biggest difference in his life.
"Changed me," Cleary said.
Dan and Jelena Cleary were married June 22, 2004. They met in 1999, at a restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario, but the courtship took awhile to get started. The first time Cleary asked for her phone number, Jelena declined. Then he asked her out again. Almost a year later, she finally said, "Yes." They've been together ever since.
Jelena Cleary said she had heard stories about Cleary's past, but they didn't represent the man she married.
"I hear the stories and say, ‘Wow, you've come a long way,' " Jelena Cleary said. "He's the most organized human being in my entire life. He has these to-do lists every day that he scratches off. He has worked so hard to get to where he is right now."
"Let's face it," said Hockey Night in Canada icon Don Cherry Sunday at the Wings off-day skate, "he lost his way."
Cleary's story begins in Kingston, Ont. where, as a 15-year-old, he piled up over 80 points in Ontario junior A hockey. The following year, he registered 81 points as an OHL rookie.
Already, talk was he would shatter records set by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
The No.1 pick in the 1997 NHL draft was a lock.
By Year 3 of major junior hockey, following a 115-point campaign, red flags started emerging. Cleary had been cut from the 1996 Canadian team for the world juniors, due in part because he was only 17. But in 1997, Mike Babcock - who would go on to coach the Red Wings - cut Cleary again.
Same thing happened in 1998, when Real Paiement - who would be the one and only coach of the St. John's Fog Devils - axed Cleary from the national junior team.
"There was such a number of talented players," Paiement says, "word was you take no chances. And Danny's reputation, well, you were taking a chance.
"Word was he was a party guy. He'd turn it on and turn it off. He wasn't a bad kid or anything, or selfish. But in a short tournament, there was no time to discipline guys or send them home.
"There was no time to change guys."
By 1997, Cleary's NHL Draft stock had plummeted. Joe Thornton was the top pick that year and Cleary had to wait until the 13th name was called in Pittsburgh, by the Chicago Blackhawks.
The next season, he bounced between Chicago, of the old International league, and junior hockey. Then Chicago shipped him to Edmonton in a seven-player deal.
Cleary played with the Oilers for the better part of the next four seasons until he signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes.
It was the best and worst times. In the desert, he and wife Jelana settled, but it wasn't long.
Following the 2003-04 season, a year in which he managed six goals in 68 games, he was let go by the Coyotes.
Adding more sting was the fact Cleary's former agent, Mike Barnett, who had by now assumed control of the Coyotes as GM, was the man who had given Cleary his walking papers.
"If you look at his history," Barnett said by phone from Phoenix, "he had been an elite player at a very early age. He got by on talent alone.
"But talent alone was not sufficient at the NHL level. Players of lesser talent were getting by on superior work ethic."
"We ratified the CBA late July," Cleary said, "and I'm waiting for my agent to let me know if I'm going to be qualified (offered a contract) by Phoenix.
"And when I didn't get qualified, I was so upset. Here I am, I have a wife to support now so things are different. I was training in California and, in fact, I was training harder than ever. Those few weeks in August created a different life for me."
Thus the beginning of the maturation process of Dan Cleary.
In the summer of 2004, Cleary began, at the urgency of new agent, J.P. Barry, and former Edmonton teammate and best friend, Shawn Horcoff, working out with fitness guru T.R. Goodman in Venice Beach, Calif.
Goodman has been widely credited for extending the career of Chris Chelios, a 46-year-old Red Wings geezer in comparison to younger foes, but nonetheless a ripped and fit player others could look admire.
"Physically," said Chelios, a teammate of Cleary's in Chicago when the latter was a rookie, "I don't want to say he wasn't working, but it just took him a while to learn he had to apply himself conditionally."
This began the maturation process of Dan Cleary.
Maturity, a word Cleary frequently uses these days.
"I would have to go to that summer," he says of the defining moment of his career. "Honestly, I've really matured mentally and physically. When you train harder and commit yourself to training all year round, I'm real fit and physically mentally. It's been my secret."
Through July and August, Goodman would challenge Cleary.
"Why aren't you a good player?" he ask. "Why aren't you scoring goals?"
Cleary laboured through the workouts. Chelios, the circuit king - in training speak - would finish his circuit of weights and exercises while Cleary had another two or three to go.
That summer, following his release from the Coyotes, Barry searched for a team Cleary could latch on to. The Toronto Maple Leafs showed a lot of interest, but so did the Detroit Red Wings.
Jelena Cleary, a Toronto native, prodded her husband to sign with the Leafs.
But Dan had a gut feeling.
As is often the case in hockey, Barry had a connection with the Wings. Niklas Kronwall was in the organization and his partner, Pat Brisson, represented former Wing Sergei Fedorov.
Detroit GM Ken Holland offered Cleary an invite to training camp. No guarantees.
"We were prepared," Holland said, "to give him a training camp invite, and we were prepared to give him a legitimate chance to earn a spot on the team. But that was it.
"There was nothing to lose on our part. No money, nothing. But everything to gain."
Most people who had Cleary's ear thought he was nuts. The Detroit Red Wings. A perennial Stanley Cup contender. Toronto? Well, they were the Leafs.
"Sometimes you get these gut feelings - everybody gets them - and I just had this feeling about Detroit. I knew I was going to go there and make it. I really believed I would.
"I know that Babs (Babcock) knew I had no chance of making this team. I was at a point where I didn't have a contract, didn't have a team to go to, but I still believed in myself. And I had a good wife who believed in me even more."
"Mike Babcock's recollection of Dan Cleary," Holland said, "was of a guy who wasn't in very good shape at the world junior camp. You know, great hands, great head for the game, but not physically fit.
"But I talked to (former Wing) Matt Schneider who worked out all summer with Cleary at Goodman's camp and Schneider gave him a high recommendation. He said Cleary deserved another opportunity, that he was committed, that he worked hard in the off-season.
"I remember hearing about this phenom coming out of the Maritimes, before Sid Crosby," the GM said after Detroit's practice Sunday. "Big points in junior A as a 15-year-old, goes into the OHL and leads the league in scoring for a while as a 16-year-old. So the expectations are this guy's going to the NHL and will be a tremendous player. He's a high draft pick, but then he starts bouncing around.
"We liked skill and one of the reasons I was excited about Danny coming to training camp was his upside. He's got hands, hockey sense, he can skate.
"He didn't play too well in training camp, but all of a sudden he picked it up in the pre-season. He won Babs over.
"We got him a two-way contract and the arrangement was if things didn't work out, he wanted the opportunity to go to Europe."
That first season in Detroit, Cleary managed but three goals in 77 games. But his play away from the puck impressed the coach.
Last year, he notched 20 goals.
"I can't say enough with what he s done and as player," said Detroit veteran Kris Draper, "and we look at that and admire him.
"He came here with the attitude, 'Just give me a chance.' He earned his chance and he's really taken advantage of it."
Just to prove 2006-07 was no fluke, Cleary responded with a 20-goal, 42-point campaign this year.
It was a season marred by injury, when a broken jaw sidelined him for 19 games. At the time of the mishap, an errant puck to the face, Cleary had all of his 20 goals in 57 games.
But Cleary's presence in a Red Wings dressing room, adorned with photos of past Detroit greats like Howe and Lindsay and Delvecchio and, most recently, Yzerman, can be measured more than just goals and assists.
He's a player Babcock uses in all situations, from the power play to the penalty kill. No matter if Detroit is up by a goal or trailing by one, Cleary is often used in the last minute or two.
Some players score 40 goals, but sit in the dying minutes with the game on the line.
"Defence is what earned me a job in Detroit my first year," he said. "I'm certainly glad I did it because now I get to play in all situations and be counted on both offensively and defensively.
"The defensive side of things, that's something I pride myself on."
Heading into the final against the Penguins, Cleary was fourth-most in minutes played among Detroit forwards, behind Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Johan Franzen.
"He leads by example," said Chelios. "He doesn't say too much in the room. But you see that. There are guys who are rah-rah, but don't back it up. There are guys who don't say 'boo' and work their asses off. He's in that second category.
"Guys notice that. Take a guy like (15-year NHL veteran) Dallas Drake and what he brings to the table. There's not a player in this room who doesn't notice what those players do during the course of a game.
"It's all about work. Getting in there, getting the nose dirty."
"I definitely took the game serious," Cleary says, alluding to his younger days, "but I think I might have taken it for granted sometimes. I came to realize it's a privilege to play in this league.
"Maturity is the big reason and a little work ethic applied."
Each of the Red Wings, from Chelios to Draper to Darren McCarty, another reclamation Detroit project, laud Cleary for his leadership.
Not the rah-rah stuff Chelios talks about, but the things behind the scenes.
Cleary has become somewhat of a media darling in the Motor City, a player reporters look to deliver insightful answers, while displaying patience to even the most inane questions.
And that role - albeit as innocuous as it may be in the broader picture - hasn't gone unnoticed. Earlier this season, Cleary was rewarded with a contract extension which will pay him $14 million through 2012-2013.
A big hike from the $675,000 he pocketed this season.
Enough to buy him a tidy home he and Jelena are looking to buy in California.
"He's got his head straightened out," says Don Cherry. " He always had the talent. When he was in Belleville, holy smokes, he was going to be the No. 1 of number ones.
"Hockey players are pretty level headed. I'm not just saying that because they're hockey players, but a lot of them come from small towns. Danny, I would have to say, was an exception. And that's what was so sad about it. Especially coming from Newfoundland where everybody was so proud of him.
"You can screw up in football, you can screw up 20 times in baseball and they'll accept you back, but not in hockey. He's an exception. He screwed up and I really have to admire him for straightening it out.
"You don't usually get second chances in hockey. Not too many get them, and not too many make the most of them. Danny, boy, he made the most of it."