By Kyle Kujawa -
Muskegon’s Justin Abdelkader was close, but he was about 45 minutes too far to the north. Portage’s Scott Parse was just over an hour south. Dozens of other Michiganders have suited up for the Grand Rapids Griffins, but no truly local product has ever skated for the team in its 16-year history.
That looks like it will change in 2012-13, as the Griffins signed East Grand Rapids native and former University of Michigan captain Luke Glendening to a one-year contract on June 19.
“It’s something I’ve always thought about, but I never really thought it would happen,” said Glendening. “I grew up watching these guys. It was something I did with my family on Friday nights.”
The 23-year-old winger was born in Grand Rapids and graduated from East Grand Rapids High School in 2007. Despite being known to fans of the college game as a hockey player, Glendening also played baseball and football in high school and had several offers to play Division II college football. He even captured a state championship on the gridiron as a junior in 2006.
“Everyone says you have to play one sport if you really want to succeed, but I love playing football, baseball and hockey,” Glendening said. “I didn’t want to give up one for the other. I didn’t know what I was going to do, where my opportunities were going to lie in the future.”
Glendening put his football offers on the backburner to take one year after high school to figure out exactly what he wanted to do. He attended Connecticut’s prestigious Hotchkiss School in hopes that he would eventually catch on elsewhere in the sport he was most passionate about – hockey.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” he said. “I went to prep school where I could play three sports. Hockey season was winding down, and I really had nowhere to play.”
He put up 28 points in 24 games, but wasn’t sure if his modest goal total of eight would be enough to get him a look at a college program. After scoring twice in one of the last games of the season, his coach approached him and told him he turned the heads of some college scouts with his best game of the year.
“I’m thinking ‘OK, who’s here? Probably someone I’ve never heard of,’” recounted Glendening. “But he said Michigan, and my eyes lit up. I immediately called my family and said I might have an opportunity to play there. They were out recruiting another kid on my team. Fortunately, they saw me and said they had an extra spot for a walk-on.
“In the end, Michigan told me that if I had an opportunity to go somewhere else, I probably should,” he continued. “But it was a dream come true to me, and I wanted an opportunity to be on that team.”
From there, Glendening’s story is well-told. He wasn’t guaranteed that he’d see playing time, but he ended up skating in 35 games as a freshman en route to earning a scholarship in each of his four seasons. On top of that, he was named an alternate captain during his sophomore season and became the eighth player in school history to wear the ‘C’ for two straight seasons.
“It was humbling,” said Glendening on serving as captain as a junior and senior. “One of the things I learned was that people don’t really care what you say, they want to see what you do. They want to see how you’re acting on and off the ice. I made sure the things I was doing represented Michigan hockey.”
When the season came to a close in April, Glendening found himself at another career crossroads. College hockey was always his goal, but his emergence into an impact player for the Wolverines gave him the opportunity to continue his career.
“Michigan was the only team willing to give me a chance, so I’m forever in debt and grateful to them,” he said. “I had so many neat opportunities. I got to play in the Frozen Four, the Big Chill and the National Championship game. I’ve played in three outdoor games. Those are things that a lot of people don’t get the experience. Being part of the tradition at Michigan is something I’ll never forget.”
Glendening, who also graduated with a degree in political science this summer, signed a late season tryout with the Providence Bruins, giving him the chance to play in three professional contests before the end of the season.
“When I got there, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Glendening. “I hadn’t skated in two weeks because [Michigan’s] season had ended. At first it was a little overwhelming. I was living in a hotel for two weeks, and I only had three hours of things to do per day.
“Getting acclimated to the game was different,” he said. “It’s more controlled; people aren’t running around as much. As soon as I got used to that, it started to feel more normal. It gave me a taste for what it’s like.”
After returning to East Grand Rapids for the summer, Glendening talked to a few professional teams but jumped at the opportunity to join Detroit’s organization when the Red Wings – who control all facets of the Griffins coaching staff and player personnel as per the new five-year affiliation agreement that just kicked in – offered him an AHL contract and a chance to skate at training camp in September.
“I don’t know how far my talent will take me,” said Glendening. “The Red Wings and Griffins organization has been tried and true through the years. You see the development of the players. It’s a great place to be, and I’m really excited.”