By Pat Evans -
To Luke Glendening, high school meant a lot more than just playing hockey.
Although the young Glendening dreamed of playing professional hockey, he knew there was more to enjoying his adolescence, so he chose to forgo the normal route of those with the talents and aspirations of a hockey life.
Now, Glendening skates with the Toledo Walleye. A victim of circumstance, he leads the Walleye with eight goals as of Nov. 19, as a slew of NHLers skating in the AHL have pushed talented young skaters to the ECHL.
Glendening shined at East Grand Rapids High School in three sports and academics. He ran for touchdowns on the gridiron, jacked homers on the diamond and slipped wristers by goalies on the ice.
Once that life focused solely on hockey, Glendening shot to the top of his game, said Shawn Hunwick, a teammate of Glendening’s at the University of Michigan.
“The thing was, it never was his No. 1 priority,” Hunwick said. “Once he was able to focus on hockey, his game started to grow.”
Life before hockey
Like any other kid dreaming of a life of professional sport, Glendening was always working on his game. His father, Tom, said a stick was never far from his hands, if he wasn’t already in the driveway shooting.
Normally, kids who dream of a hockey career must choose to make the sport his or her life very early on.
Glendening didn’t choose that life; instead he continued his public school and multiple-sport life.
“I got nervous, I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” Luke Glendening said. “And the more I talked to my support group, the more I realized there were going to be some pretty special moments in high school I didn’t want to miss.”
As he played football, baseball and hockey, he began to excel in all. But football was the one that began to attract attention. Playing at a then-emerging high school powerhouse, he had offers from several Division II colleges for a football career. He won a state championship in 2006 with the football team.
But the dream of hockey pushed on.
He passed on college for a year, instead opting to attend the Hotchkiss School, a prep school in Connecticut. There, he continued his life of baseball, football and hockey. Glendening was seriously looked at by Penn for football, before they ultimately passed.
But a break was caught when a University of Michigan assistant coach went out to see a teammate of Glendening’s. Before long, a walk-on spot was offered and a shot at college hockey was in his lap.
One thing stood in his way; a lack of playing time. As a walk-on, and a player coach Red Berenson hadn’t seen play, there was no promise Glendening would ever see the ice.
He wasn’t all that shocked; never concentrating 100 percent on hockey, he was behind from a developmental standpoint.
The coaches would just tell him, “You’re an athlete, you’ll pick it up.” And sure enough, Glendening soon caught up.
“I wasn’t burned out from playing hockey every day,” Glendening said. “I still wanted to be on the ice every day and I wasn’t sick of the sport like maybe some of the other guys were.”
Through the practices, Glendening proved to the Wolverines coaches he deserved to be on the ice.
His sophomore season, he was voted assistant captain. Then, as a junior and a senior, he wore the ‘C’, making him just the eighth player in Michigan hockey history to be a multiple-year captain.
Still, the lack of guaranteed playing time never wore off with Glendening, and he did his best to prove his worth the entire four years.
“It was a kick in the butt and I knew I had to show up and work hard,” Glendening said. “When that happens to you, there’s two ways to look at it. You can say, ‘No one sees me as very good and I can’t change that idea,’ or you can work your tail off and make the most of it and prove yourself.
“I was just so excited to be living my dream of playing at that level.”
The hard work paid off; in four years, Glendening scored 31 goals and assisted on 39 more. He was named the CCHA’s Defensive Forward of the Year his senior season.
The summer after his graduation from University of Michigan, the Grand Rapids Griffins signed Glendening to a minor league contract. It was the first time the Griffins had signed a player from West Michigan, and Glendening was ecstatic to sign a contract with his hometown team.
Yet a minor roadblock has appeared because as the NHL continues labor talks, some young Red Wings are donning Griffins jerseys, with Glendening waiting in Toledo.
Still, Glendening knows he’s living his dream and his attitude will pay off eventually.
“It’s a dream come true to be playing professionally,” he said. “I know it’s a long road ahead of me, but I’m just going to keep working hard, and hope for the best.”
It’s about the attitude
Nick Vitucci sums it up pretty nicely.
The head coach of the Toledo Walleye said for the most part, at the college level, every player has the same talent; it’s the work ethic that will set people apart.
“Luke is the type of player who will always be able to contribute,” Vitucci said. “Even if he doesn’t score, he’ll always bring his best game.”
Glendening always has been humble, and his desire to be the best always shined through.
“He’s always been a firm believer of the only thing you can control is how hard you work,” Tom Glendening said. “He’s just wired differently, he wants to be the best. He loves getting his body into shape and pushing it to its limits.
“If you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll find a way to do it.”
Part of the work ethic comes from Glendening’s humbling mindset. He is always quick to shoot down compliments. Other players with his abilities might let it get to their heads, but Glendening puts his down and works harder.
“Sports have a way of humbling people,” Tom Glendening said. “There’s always somebody who’s going to be better than you. He just has the heart and drive to be better than that somebody.”
Aside from his attitude, a quick conversation with Glendening shows how he’s been able to take advantage of a wide support system.
He still talks to his high school football coach, Peter Stuursma, on a regular basis. Just as he talks to his parents, Tom and Leslie, about almost every decision he makes.
Glendening takes a little something from everybody he meets in life and applies it to his own, Tom Glendening said.
But his family and friends help continue Glendening’s push to be great and survive in a cutthroat career.
“There’s always going to be days when you think, ‘I can’t do this,’ and they are there for you. They help you get through those times,” Glendening said. “I’ll remember the people along the way more than the games. I remember all through college, people coming to games, and I’d say ‘Wow, I didn’t think they cared about hockey.’
“They didn’t. They just are there to support me.”
Michigan on the up
When Glendening left East Grand Rapids headed for Hotchkiss, high school players moving to college was rare.
But as the more stories like Glendening’s pop up at universities across the state, the Michigan high school hockey scene could soon be bustling.
“I know the route I chose isn’t the route most people chose,” Glendening said. “But it has gotten a lot better, even since I was in school. We’re starting to hear about more players from high school at the college level. And as that level of play increases, so too will the coaches who look at high school hockey.”
It’s a domino effect, according to Glendening. The play will only get better at the level as the coaches look to high school more and kids realize that it is a path to college.
“Hockey is getting better,” he said. “As the fever continues to grow, the level of play will increase and the players that see high school as a viable route will grow and then the coaches will see that as well and go after them.”
The route to play hockey isn’t what matters, it’s the work that is put into that route, Tom Glendening said.
“He didn’t take the route most people do, but he really shows if you set your heart on something and work hard, something good will come of it,” he said, adding that the good might not always be a career in hockey. “It’s not really where you get, but how you get there. Working hard, learning lessons from the mistakes you make and getting back on the horse.”
Tom Glendening said his son’s career will last as long as he wants it to; it’s his decision to make.
“If the Toledo Walleye is the last step he takes, that’s great. It’s a storybook story,” he said. “All I said is you get one shot. He’ll know when the time is right.”
But that shot isn’t over yet. Glendening is working as hard as ever. He’s playing more than 20 minutes a game in Toledo, creating opportunities, and hinting that he wants to be back in Grand Rapids before the season ends.
Vitucci said the hard work that Glendening continues to put into his game will only pay off more in the future.
“He has big upside,” Vitucci said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him on a third or fourth line in the NHL four of five years down the line.”