Going from walk-on to captain of the Michigan Wolverines, East Grand Rapids’ Luke Glendening defied the odds. His next goal: playing pro hockey in his hometown.
Story by Mark Newman
Luke Glendening has never been the biggest, strongest or most talented hockey player on any team, but few have matched his desire and determination.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson, who played 17 seasons in the NHL and has sent dozens of players to the NHL over the course of 28 seasons with the Wolverines, said Glendening is the type of player who excels when the odds are against him.
“Sometimes when a kid isn’t as high-profile, doesn’t get drafted, doesn’t get all the accolades of other players, he ends up being a harder worker, having a better attitude than kids with more talent,” Berenson said.
“Some players thrive on it and it becomes part of their mantra. Luke is one of those players. You never have to remind him to work harder.”
Ask East Grand Rapids High School football coach Peter Stuursma about Glendening and he will ask you if you have two hours to listen.
“Luke has the ‘it’ factor,” Stuursma said. “You can’t explain ‘it.’ You can’t write a Ph.D dissertation on ‘it.’ But Luke has ‘it.’
“He’s truly a one-in-a-million kid. If I had 11 players like Luke, the Chicago Bears wouldn’t have played us. He’s a gifted athlete who puts himself in a position to compete because he never stops working.”
“It” is apparently in Glendening’s genes.
His father, Tom, now a production scheduler at Amway, was the starting fullback for Bowling Green in the early 1980s. His mother, Leslie, a former cheerleader at Bowling Green, is one of the founders of the Hearts in Step Christian Dance Academy.
His younger brother, Joe, was an All-American as a junior running back at Division-II Hillsdale College last fall, racking up 1,604 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns. His little sister, Mackenzie, now 19, was active in dance before attending Grand Valley State University.
“Luke had lots of energy as a young boy,” Tom recalls. “He always had a ball or stick in his hand.”
His energy, it seemed, was almost endless. His father sometimes worried that Luke might be pushing himself too hard.
He remembers one day in particular when he was still coaching his son in hockey. Luke was 8 or 9 at the time.
“We had a morning hockey scrimmage and only seven kids showed up, so Luke was on the ice most of the time. After hockey, we went straight onto the football field and the temperature was like 85 degrees that day. He had a 80-yard run and he was like the horse that won’t quit. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I’m going to kill this kid if I’m not careful.”
Quit was not part of Luke’s vocabulary.
As the junior starting fullback for East’s football team, Glendening’s job was to be the lead blocker for senior star running back Kelvin Grady. For the last five weeks of the team’s state title run, Glendening played on one good leg, having suffered a torn meniscus in his knee.
“He’d play on Friday or Saturday and he’d rip off 150 yards, score three touchdowns, knock down 25 people paving the way for Kelvin, have an interception, a couple of pass breakups and 12 tackles, and then he’d limp off the field,” Stuursma said.
“Hockey players are tough in general, but he’s just so tough and so competitive. He’ll give you that ‘aw, shucks’ attitude, like he’s just doing his job, but put him into a competitive situation and he turns into an absolute werewolf.”
Still, few colleges seemed interested in the 5-foot-10, 185-pound kid because no one had bothered to measure his heart. He had a couple of walk-on offers to play football at Wheaton and Hope, two Division-III Christian colleges, but he really wanted to play hockey.
The Glendenings decided to keep Luke’s options open by sending him to Hotchkiss, a Connecticut prep academy that was favored by Ivy League schools like Penn, which indicated it might have a spot for him on its football team.
At Hotchkiss, Luke never heard from Penn or, for that matter, any other school. Football season came and went, as did the better part of the hockey season. He began to question his decision.
“I felt like I had wasted a year in my life trying to pursue something that was never going to happen,” he said. “I got really homesick and wanted to come home. I thought about quitting, but I didn’t. I stuck it out.”
Family and friends offered words of encouragement. There were countless phone calls; one person even sent him tapes of his brother’s football games in an effort to raise his spirits.
“They say it takes a village to raise a kid, and Luke’s really been blessed to have the support of the whole community, from his coaches to our extended family and friends,” his father said. “It felt like everybody was rooting for his success.”
Luke smiles at his recollection of the time, which he now calls one of the best memories in his life – a life that was about to change.
“After the last game of my hockey season, my coach said, ‘You sure picked a good game to play well. A coach from Michigan was here and he seemed interested.’ I thought he was kidding.”
Billy Powers, an assistant at Michigan, came away impressed enough that Michigan offered to make him a preferred walk-on, which is the equivalent of a one-year tryout.
Luke still had to make a name for himself. (Berenson, in fact, called him Brandon on the first day of camp.) Asked if there is one word to describe his feelings about pulling on the block M for the first time, he says it would be “overwhelmed.”
“I vividly remember calling my dad after the first day and telling him that I had so much new equipment on that I felt like the Tin Man. I was so excited and nervous that guys had to tell me to calm down.”
It didn’t take Luke long to make an impression on the coaches at Michigan.
“Right off the bat, you could see that this kid worked hard,” Berenson said. “I had not seen him play, so I wasn’t sure how much he would end up playing here, but the more we watched him in practice, the more we liked him. He was more than competitive and he picked up our team systems really well.
“Once we got him into a couple of games, his physicality and strength showed. Even though he was a freshman, he played strong and he played hard. He was a conscientious player without the puck, and we learned early to trust him defensively, and his game grew from there.”
Luke was a regular by his sophomore season, and as a junior he was made a co-captain.
“He’s a great leader and a good two-way player,” Berenson said. “He blocks shots and he’s a great penalty killer. He’s just a great team player. He is very coachable and always has a great attitude. He’s one of those kids who does everything the right way and does it all the way.”
By his senior year, Luke showed that he deserved every accolade he would earn as the Wolverines’ captain.
“He’s such a serious kid; his commitment was off-the-charts,” Berenson said. “He was around other players who trained hard, too, but he led our team in work ethic during his senior year.
“He was a leader by example – every practice, every game, every shift. If we were doing 25-yard sprints or a mile run off the ice, he was always at the front of the pack. He just pushed hard. Other players would look at him and go, ‘Wow, this guy is something special.’ That was the way he led.
“Everyone who has ever had Luke has seen something special in him, and hopefully that will follow him at the next level.”
Berenson won’t guarantee that Luke will succeed at the NHL level, but he would be the last to bet against his former captain.
“You can never know. I didn’t know if he would even play here at Michigan, and look at what he did. There’s a big question mark about the next level, but Luke is the kind of kid who will compete and do what it takes to find a role.
“He’s not going to start in the NHL, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he worked his way up. His first challenge is to be able to play at the American League level. It’s different than the college game, so he has to get that sorted out in terms of the pace, skill level, and so on. But he’ll find a way to make it work. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two he gets called up for a game.”
Of course, the Glendenings are thrilled by the possibility of watching their son play in his hometown as a Griffin.
“It would be a dream-come-true,” said his mother. “I remember taking him to Jolly Roger and Belknap, and I would hold him up (on the edge of the dashers) and he’d stand there and just watch. I think one of his first words was ‘zamboni.’ He just loved hockey.”
But Luke is doing his best to be honest about his chances. He knows that he could easily become the odd man out in Grand Rapids, especially with the NHL lockout pushing some players back into the AHL.
“All I can do is put my best foot forward,” he said. “I’m excited to get out there and see where I stand. I’m excited for the opportunity and if it happens, that’s awesome.
“But I’m also trying to be realistic. I might have to swallow my pride and go to Toledo, and that’s okay. I’m still going to be playing hockey, and I’m going to work hard to show that I belong at the next level.”
Stuursma, for one, likes his chances.
“Luke has put himself in the position to have this opportunity, and he will do everything to take advantage of it,” Stuursma said. “When the odds are against him, you can be sure that he’s ready to go.”