Dan Cleary puts painful past behind him

DETROIT -- You think you have an idea of the wear and tear of a Stanley Cup run. Or a run to the Stanley Cup finals. And maybe you have an idea of the wear and tear of two such runs in succession.

But you don't. No idea, really.

Not unless you talk to Dan Cleary.

For more than a year, from the end of the 2009 playoffs until this offseason, the gritty, skilled Detroit Red Wings winger had to drag himself up the stairs at his home like Long John Silver.

"I had to go up one leg at a time -- peg leg," Cleary said in an interview after a vigorous on-ice workout at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday.

He took his pregame naps downstairs because his knee was in such bad shape.

Constant pain? "Oh yeah," Cleary said.

The native of Carbonear, Newfoundland, planned his day so that he went up the stairs onlyonce, to go to sleep at night. And he came down them only once, when he woke up the next morning. And if it had been just the knee, well, maybe it wouldn't have been so bad.

But during last season, while he step-hopped up and down his stairs, Cleary also endured a separated shoulder and a twice-torn groin muscle.

"There's nothing worse than an injury-filled season," Cleary acknowledged with a wry grin.

With all that, Cleary missed 18 games last season and still chipped in 15 goals, plus two more in the postseason. Ten days after the end of the playoffs, Cleary had surgery to repair two tears in his meniscus and a torn MCL.

"Now I feel great. A lot of guys feel the same way," Cleary said.

He wasn't the only critical Red Wings player to miss significant time to injury last season. Johan Franzen (55 games) and Niklas Kronwall (34 games) missed time with knee injuries, and Valtteri Filppula was out 27 games with a wrist injury.

All are back and -- notwithstanding Franzen's charley horse suffered after a contentious hit from Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik in an exhibition game Wednesday night -- all are healthy and looking forward to a new beginning.

"I think everybody's pretty excited," Cleary said. "It's almost like we've got something to prove again."

Indeed. After two straight trips to the Stanley Cup finals, including a Cup win in 2008 followed by a gut-wrenching loss in seven games to the Penguins the next season, the Red Wings were dispatched in the second round by San Jose this past spring.

"The wolf climbing the hill is always hungrier than the one at the top," Cleary said.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock put an even finer point on it. He believes it's crucial for all of those key players who were injured to step forward if the team is going to challenge for another championship (and he includes Jiri Hudler in that group after the forward spent a season in the Kontinental Hockey League).

"We need [Franzen] to be a huge player for us," Babcock said. "We think he has a chance to be a dominant player in the league, so he has to be better if we're going to take a step. I think the same thing goes for Dan Cleary and Filppula and Kronwall. Those are all guys that we need to take huge steps if we're going to continue to challenge. If not, we'll fall by the wayside."