Thousands of young hockey fans dream of one day skating with the pros. A select few grow up to realize that dream, and even fewer get the chance to live that dream in their hometown.
Luke Glendening became the first native of Grand Rapids, Mich., to play for the Grand Rapids Griffins when the American Hockey League club signed him to a one-year contract 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 coach Jeff Blashill to recall the 24-year-old forward.
"At the beginning of last year I cut Luke and sent him to Toledo, and that was a mistake," Blashill said. "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 said. "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 continued throughout the season and into the postseason, which culminated with Grand Rapids winning the first Calder Cup championship in franchise history. Glendening finished the playoffs 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," Glendening said. "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," Blashill said. "He's a hard player and did a good job controlling some of the best opponents we've faced."
Ever the humble teammate, Glendening credited the team's leadership 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," Glendening said of Hoggan. "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."
According to his coach, Glendening's attitude is just part of what makes him an exceptional asset to the team.
"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," Glendening said 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."
Hoggan said he likes Glendening's chances of making his NHL debut at some point this season.
"He's in a pretty good position now to take that next step," Hoggan said. "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."
Glendening said he won't let any concern for the future get in the way of his focus on the present.
"I just want to be an integral part of this team and help in any way I can," he said. "To be the best teammate I can be, that's really what I'm looking for."
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