GR native earning stripes with Griffins

by Alyssa Dombrowski || for

Thousands of young hockey fans dream of one day skating with the pros. A select few grow up to actually realize that dream. And even fewer get the chance to live that dream in their own hometown.

Luke Glendening became the first Grand Rapids native ever to play for the Griffins when the club signed him to a one-year AHL deal before last season.

“Some of my greatest childhood memories with my dad and brother are going to Griffins games,” Glendening said. “To be here now as a player and remember that feeling of sitting in the stands is pretty special.”

Glendening, who graduated from East Grand Rapids High School in 2007, earned a multi-year tenure as captain at the University of Michigan after joining the Wolverines as a walk-on.

He began the 2012-13 season with the Griffins’ ECHL affiliate in Toledo, but it didn’t take long for Grand Rapids head coach Jeff Blashill to recall the 24-year-old winger.

“At the beginning of last year I cut Luke and sent him to Toledo, and that was a mistake,” said Blashill. “We heard about how good he was in the ECHL. When he came back up, he proved to be one of our best forwards though the course of the year and certainly through the playoffs.

“Luke is somebody who has had to work for things his whole life. He’s been told lots of times that maybe he wasn’t good enough and he’s proven lots of people wrong, including myself.”

In his first game with Grand Rapids, Glendening did just that. He scored on the first shot of his first shift against the Rochester Americans on Dec. 19, 2012 – and there were plenty of familiar faces in attendance at Van Andel Arena to celebrate alongside him.

“I remember that in every corner of the rink, there was someone I knew pounding on the glass, whether it was a coach or friend who heard I was playing,” Glendening recalls. “It’s been special for me to be able to have so many friends and family members come to games.”

His success with the Griffins would continue throughout the season and into the postseason, which culminated in Grand Rapids winning the first Calder Cup championship in franchise history. Glendening finished the playoffs ranking first among all AHL rookies with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists).

“Obviously, it’s a nice confidence boost to have won the Calder Cup,” said Glendening. “People play their whole careers and never win a championship, and I was fortunate enough to win one in my rookie season.

“But I think the experience itself was invaluable. Just to play in those games under that amount of pressure – it can’t be overstated how huge that was for me.”

“Most nights during the playoffs, Luke was faced off against the other team’s best line,” said Blashill of Glendening’s impact. “He’s a hard player and did a good job controlling some of the best opponents we’ve faced.”

Ever the humble teammate, Glendening credits the leadership on the Griffins’ squad for much of its success, including veteran captain Jeff Hoggan – who also won a Calder Cup as a rookie, with Houston in 2003.

“Playing on a line with him, he’s taught me so much about what it takes to be a great hockey player,” said Glendening. “His leadership style, his intensity, his focus, the way he’s created a culture of winning here – that’s something I’ll carry with me for a long time.”

The appreciation is mutual.

“He’s got the respect of everybody in the locker room,” Hoggan said. “Luke is a character guy that possesses a great amount of leadership skills for a second-year pro.”

Glendening’s attitude is just part of what makes him an exceptional asset to the team, according to his coach.

“Luke is a player who has a rare combination of extraordinary work ethic, extraordinary capacity to get better and great inner confidence,” Blashill said. “When you combine those three attributes, it can really make for a special person and player.”

The forward’s breakout rookie season caught the attention of Grand Rapids’ NHL affiliate, and he signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings on July 5 – less than a year after being cut from his first AHL training camp. Glendening will begin the 2013-14 season in Grand Rapids, helping the Griffins defend their title.

“I think ‘whirlwind’ is the perfect word to describe it,” said Glendening of the past year. “I’m just trying to take it all in. There’s just something about being a part of this program and learning from these guys around me. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

“He’s in a pretty good position now to take that next step,” said Hoggan of Glendening’s chances with the Red Wings this year. “He works hard every single day and he’s one of the guys that Detroit has really got their eye on.

“He can take what we accomplished last season to be successful for us this year, and be one of those guys getting the call up [to the NHL]. There’s no question about that.”

But Glendening won’t let any concern for the future get in the way of his focus in this moment.

“I just want to be an integral part of this team and help in any way I can,” Glendening said. “To be the best teammate I can be – that’s really what I’m looking for.”