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Miracle on Fulton Street: East Grand Rapids' Luke Glendening continues to elevate Griffins, defy odds

EGRHS graduate Luke Glendening's storybook rookie campaign for the Griffins continues his unusual road to professional hockey success.
Luke Glendening

Luke Glendening /Mark Newman

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Glendening celebrates with teammates

Glendening celebrates with teammates /Graig Abel

Until this season, the 17-year franchise Grand Rapids Griffins never had a player from Greater Grand Rapids. The one they have now was never supposed to play at this level.

And the Toronto Marlies now wish that he never did.

East Grand Rapids native Luke Glendening scored the game-winning goal Tuesday night in Toronto to help the Griffins come back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Marlies 4-3 and advance to the AHL Western Conference Finals.  Though he was never a prolific scorer at the collegiate level, the University of Michigan graduate currently stands as the 9th-highest goal scorer in this year’s AHL playoffs. 

To say the least, Glendening has exceeded expectations. 

But his journey to this point makes his recent development into a bona fide NHL prospect all the more intriguing. 

Bob Kaser, the Griffins' Vice President of Community Relations and Broadcasting, emphasized Thursday just how special Glendening's success playing for the Detroit Red Wings' top minor league affiliate really is.

"I've been in hockey for 34 years, and it's one of the most incredible stories that I can think of," Kaser said.

For starters, Glendening is certainly a local product.  Born in St. Mary's hospital, he studied at Excel Charter Academy before attending East Grand Rapids Middle School and East Grand Rapids High School.

But Kaser stressed Glendening's circuitous route to success in what Kaser calls the second best hockey league in the world.  Most AHL players came up through the junior hockey ranks, a demanding regiment that entails moving away from home at age 16 to concentrate on hockey.

By contrast, Glendening stayed home, playing football, hockey and baseball at EGRHS. Kaser, a longtime East Grand Rapids resident, remembers Glendening's "unmatched determination" in all three sports.

Curiously, Glendening wasn't even best known as a hockey player. Rather, he gained most recognition in his role as the Pioneers' starting fullback--mostly a blocking back for star running back Kelvin Grady--during their 2006 Division 3 football state championship season. 

And, truth be told, Glendening's EGRHS athletic accomplishments paled in comparison to his younger brother, Joe, who went on to become the Pioneers' all-time rushing leader and a Division II All-American at Hillsdale College.

Unlike Grady and Joe Glendening, Luke Glendening received no athletic scholarship offers, only invitations to play Division III college football as a walk-on for two small Christian schools, Wheaton College and Hope College.  

After graduating high school in 2007, Glendening spent a year at the Hotchkiss School, a college prep school in Connecticut, hoping to win a football or hockey scholarship.  Despite initial interest from the University of Pennsylvania's football program, he again received no scholarship offers.

Disappointed and homesick, Glendening received encouragement from his family back in East Grand Rapids, who encouraged him to pray and read the Bible to gain direction about his college plans. 

It was at that point that Glendening's gritty hockey play impressed Michigan assistant hockey coach Billy Powers.   Powers, who was visiting Hotchkiss to scout one of Glendening's teammates, eventually offered Glendening the chance to be a preferred walk-on at Michigan. 

Glendening accepted.

He went on to become not only a scholarship player but also the Wolverines' captain his junior and senior years. 

In the 2010-11 season, Glendening helped Michigan win the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) regular season championship and advance to the finals of the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Tournament.

After the 2011-12 season, Glendening was named the CCHA Best Defensive Forward.

Undrafted and unsigned by any NHL club, Glendening signed a one-year contract with the Griffins in June.  Generally viewed as a depth signing, he was not expected to start the season in Grand Rapids.  Indeed, the excitement about Glendening being the first local player to sign with the organization was tempered by doubts by some observers that he would ever play for the team.  

Kaser, however, emphasized that the Griffins knew they had signed someone special in Glendening.

“Anyone like me who has been fortunate enough to watch Luke compete at East Grand Rapids and Michigan knew that he would not be denied taking his game . . .  to the next level,” said Kaser.

Perhaps predictably, Glendening was assigned at the beginning of the season to the Griffins' ECHL affiliate, the Toledo Walleye. 

But while in Toledo, Glendening demonstrated an unexpected scoring touch.

Glendening played 27 games for Toledo, scoring 14 goals--the highest for the Walleye at that point, and four more than his highest single-season total at Michigan.  His efforts earned him a place in the ECHL All-Star Game.

It was a game Glendening never played. He was needed in Grand Rapids.

Called up from Toledo on Dec. 17, Glendening's dream to play for his hometown Griffins came true two days later. In true storybook fashion, before numerous friends and family members, Glendening scored during his first shift, on his first shot as an AHL player. The Griffins went on to defeat the Rochester Americans 4-2.

Since his call-up, Glendening has been centering the Griffins grinding third line. Known primarily for his hard-nosed defensive play, Glendening also contributed eight goals and 18 assists in 51 games.  He also had a plus-12 rating, good for fourth best on the club.

Glendening's strong rookie season helped the Griffins capture the AHL Midwest Division title. And he ramped up his play in the first round of the playoffs, where he pitched in two goals and two assists and had a plus-4 rating as the Griffins defeated the Houston Aeros three games to two. 

Which brings us to his aforementioned second round heroics.  As the Griffins upset the Marlies four games to two, Glendening scored three more goals, added three assists and had a plus-3 rating over the six games.

Currently Glendening's goal, point, and plus/minus totals each ranks second on a talented Griffins squad.

But speaking to me at Van Andel Arena after Thursday's practice, after conducting an interview with Wood TV 8,  Glendening made clear that he wasn't concentrating on personal statistics or heroics.

When asked about his game-winning goal, Glendening downplayed his own involvement.

"It was pretty special," he said. "I was just happy for the team.  To come back like that was a special moment for our team."

Glendening also continues to express his happiness at being able to play for the Griffins.

"I've enjoyed every minute of it," he said.

When asked about his favorite memories from this season so far, his answer was general but revealing.

"Just being a part of this team," he said, "learning from the older guys."

One of those "older guys" is Glendening's linemate and Griffins team captain, Jeff Hoggan. A 35-year-old veteran player whose 11-year pro career includes 107 games in the NHL, Hoggan expressed genuine admiration for his 24-year-old teammate.

Hoggan emphasized Glendening's work ethic as an undrafted player who's fought hard for his opportunity to play as a pro.

"He's a guy you root for, for sure," Hoggan said. "He's come in and done above and beyond what the hockey experts expected of him."

And at least one hockey expert, Kaser, believes that Glendening can play at hockey's highest level.

“It was never a matter of if he would play for the Griffins but how soon and how much of an impact he would have," said Kaser. "Given his success here, I think now we can say the same about the only step remaining, the National Hockey League.”

Head coach Jeff Blashill stressed Glendening's intanglible qualities.

"Luke's representative of what we have on this team: a lot of character, a lot of will, a lot of determination," Blashill said. "Luke embodies that."

For Glendening, character includes staying close to those who helped bring him to where he is. Taking advantage of living in his hometown, he spends regular time with his family and attends their church, Crossroads Bible Church.  He said Thursday that he believes his parents have attended every Griffins home game he's played.

Glendening also remains in contact with his former school coaches, specifically noting EGRHS football coach Peter Stuursma.

"I talk to a lot of my coaches," Glendening said. "Not so much about sports anymore. They're friends now."

While Glendening prepares for the Griffins' immanent series with the Oklahoma City Barons ahead, he declined to speculate on his future.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said. "I'm focusing on things I can control."

Glendening did, however, offer some encouragement to those who might be inspired by his story.

"Don't stop chasing your dream," he said. "I know that I haven't taken the most common road to be here, but you never know what's going to happen."

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Thanks, Marie!

And thanks, Ms. Parker!  Nice to see Luke get a couple of assists in game 7 against the Barons tonight!  Off to the Calder Cup finals!!!!